Friday, June 01, 2018

Preview: Jaimie Branch Is Coming To Town

There is a lot of music happening this weekend. For instance, my bandmate Erin Dawes, from the Love Letters, is debuting with her newest project Go Go Gidget this Saturday at Howlers. On top of that, I had no idea that the Three Rivers Arts Festival is kicking off tonight (Friday night). Also on Friday night, one of the most promising new trumpet players in all of cutting edge jazz is coming to Alphabet City, the live space hosted by City of Asylum on the North Side.

The woman with the horn is Jaimie Branch. Last year, I reviewed her debut album Fly or Die here on the blog. It was one of my more effusive pieces of the year, which can be attributed to the fact that Fly or Die was that good. I thought for sure that I would be one of just a few people to notice her. (I always feel like I'm a little behind the curve on things like this.) Much to my surprise, JazzTimes ran a feature on her just a few months later. Branch also seemed to be the one everyone considered Best New Artist of 2017 too.

She recently released Kudu (International Anthem), a new album by a project called Anteloper. It features her together with drummer Jason Nazary (who played in Little Women with Darius Jones and Travis Laplante). The spare instrumentation might evoke Chicago Underground Duo, and like that group, Anteloper incorporates electronics into the music. But the comparison ends there because Branch and Nazary are all about movement. The album's initial blast of static electricity evolves into solid direction after about 90 seconds. Branch is equally devoted to dirty smears and bright, crisp melody lines. Much like Fly or Die, it's pretty exciting stuff. The album is available as a download or - if you know indie rockers this won't surprise you - as a cassette. Visit for details.

Or if you're in Pittsburgh Friday night (aka tonight, techinically), you can check out Branch and pick up a copy directly. She'll be performing with a slightly different unit, which is billed as Party Knüllers X Jaimie Branch. The first part of the moniker refers to the group of cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and Stoli L. Sozzleberg, who have been performing together around the U.S. and Europe. Branch has played with both of Party Knüllers but this is the first time she's toured with them. The show begins at 8 p.m. and there is no cover but reservations are required. Visit Alphabet City to make reservations and to find out about more shows coming up there.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Interview with Eleanor Friedberger

Eleanor Friedberger
Opening for the Decemberists
Thursday, May 31
Benedum Centre, Downtown Pittsburgh
8 p.m. 412-456-6666

Doing an interview while on tour can be a challenge to any musician. The potential lack of sleep, road food and who knows else can make a musician clam up in the face of a prodding questions.

But when Eleanor Friedberger took my call on Tuesday afternoon, not only was she between dates, she was waiting to hear a prognosis of her car, which broke down the night before. When she mentioned the impending call would come from “the transmission guy,” I felt a deep sense of empathy. She, on the other hand, was taking it in stride. “I’m not in the greatest mood to talk, but we can talk a little bit. It’s fine. A lot of things could be much worse,” she says. She still managed to laugh a few times during our conversation.

Friedberger is on tour in support of her fourth solo album, Rebound, opening several shows for the Decemberists, including a stop in Pittsburgh this Thursday, May 30 at the Benedum Center. The new album is a radical turn after 2016’s New View. On it, the one-time singer of the Fiery Furnaces delivered her purest singer-songwriter. This time, she goes virtually solo, playing guitar and keyboards herself (with help from producer Clemens Knieper).

The album title comes from a club she frequented during a stay in Athens, Greece. Like all of her work both on her own and with the Fiery Furnaces (the band she founded with her brother Matthew), Rebound displays her skill at unique storytelling, Each song comes off like novella, to the extent that it was tempting to try and uncover the backstory. At first blush, the ten tracks could be scenes from her time in Athens. But when asked too much, Friedberger, understandably, didn’t want to strip away some of the mystique that drives her work. Plus there were other things to talk about, like why she loves Pittsburgh so much, and how it should be discussed in the same breath as other big cities. (And always remember to stick with the open-ended questions, not the yes-or-no ones.)

How long were you in Greece?

It’s funny, I was in this bind [with the car] last night. This couple at the show in Montreal, maybe because of the press around the album or whatever, this woman said, “We’re Greek!” I stayed with them. They drove me to my car this morning.

In some ways it’s funny because when I went to Greece I met all these musicians and started playing with these guys. It was weird to be in a band with people who look like you could be related to. It’s a strange sensation, but it’s also — what’s the word? It’s not a positive word. Where it’s like, am I racist, feeling so connected to these people who are like me? It’s a funny feeling.

Anyways. I have a deep connection to the place. It was only made more real when I spent time living there in the winter in Athens. It wasn’t just like a holiday vibe.

Did you write the album while you were there?

No, I didn’t write any of it while I was there. That was the idea. I met all these musicians and formed a new band and played a few shows. But it wasn’t until I came home that I really sat down and got to work.

Had you thought about staying since you got a band together?

Yeah, I wasn’t ready to leave. And I thought about recording the album there too. About four years ago I bought a house in upstate New York, and so that’s kind of tied me to that place. I feel like I can’t go away for months and months on end. I feel like I have some responsibilities at the house. But it’s good to have a real home base. But yeah, I could have stayed longer.

The album is a bit of a departure from the last one because it’s you and Clemens playing everything, right?

The album started with these elaborate demos. Elaborate for me because I played everything and then we tried to keep as much as we could. Some things we started over from scratch. Some things we just did the demos and replaced and added some things. But yes, it was the two of us that played everything.

I feel more insecure about this record than I have any other because my hands are all over it. The last album I made [was] with these guys that I’ve been touring with. I didn’t play a single note on the album. This is the polar opposite.

I wondered, going in, if you were looking for a departure. The last album seemed like the most straight-ahead rock thing for you.

Yeah, for sure. Which is what I was trying to do. I love it. I think {New View] sounds great. And it sounds like I was trying to be on this trajectory of a ’70s singer-songwriter-y thing that I’ve been emulating all this time. That was like the pinnacle of what I could do in that vein. It sounds like five people recording live to tape in a barn in upstate New York and that’s what we did. And that’s how it sounds.

For [Rebound] I thought, I don’t ever need to ever do that again. So that’s why I was willing to do the opposite.

Is there any kind of concept to the album from beginning to end?

No, I never go into anything… It starts out as a bunch of songs and it ends up a bunch of songs. I can make up a story after the fact. Or you can because that’s what you do. But it’s not really for me to say, I don’t think. I can say that it sounds like someone feeling alienated, maybe feeling a little disappointed. There are certain emotions attached to it, but I don’t know about overriding concepts.

I was thinking even, if there is a concept it does dart around anyway. “It’s Hard” seems like it could be a journal entry about hanging out at Rebound.

Yeah, with that song in particular, I sat down: I want to write a song about going to this bar called Rebound and that’s what the song is about. That’s what it feels like being there. What the environment [was like]… when I have the second verse it’s kind of like the nostalgia that that place created. The second verse reflects that sort of nostalgia. It’s about different dances. So that’s kind of unusual for me to sit down and write a song about something as specific as that.

The idea of “It’s Hard” – what’s the “it” in this case?

(Laughs) Well that’s left open. I mean… yeah. By mentioning [Rebound], it’s a very specific place. But because… it’s also a little bit of a joke. There’s a Who album called It’s Hard that I kind of grew up with. (Pauses). It’s all hard! So that’s my joke. It’s all.

That’s reflecting a lot of things. Maybe mostly, in terms of the other stuff that the album is about: living in Greece, living in Athens. It’s a really difficult place to be a live right now. Because of the economic situation. But obviously it’s much more broad that that too.

It’s funny. That place, the club, has this darkness about it. Literal and figurative darkness. The music and the dancing wasn’t like a party scene at all. It was like everybody dancing alone. It was a hard place.

And it’s like an afterhours place?

Yeah. It doesn’t even open until 3 a.m.

Do they close bars over there at 2 a.m.?

It depends. Most people, similar to Spain, don’t eat dinner until 10 p.m. So, it’s a very much late night culture. So it’s really typical to stay up all night on the weekends, if you’re going out.
But even if you’re not going out, dinner doesn’t usually start until 9 or 10 p.m.

For me it’s a very different culture.  It’s interesting to go in the winter because it’s so… for me, going to spend time in Greece is always a holiday-type of thing. You go to the beach and you’re there in the summer. Being there in the winter you forget, oh it actually snows in Greece and it’s cold. It gets dark early like anywhere else. I had to really adjust my whole mode, you know? I’m not a night owl. So it was funny to see me switch, and stay up until three or  four a.m. every night.

How long did it take you to adjust to that?

Maybe a couple weeks, and that’s why it was hard to leave. I was acclimated to living there and living that way. The friends I had were all artists and musicians, who didn’t have normal jobs.

Showy Early Spring” seems like you’re talking about the thaw coming.

I wrote that back when I was at home.

The part that you go into at the end is almost mysterious, almost like a cliffhanger. [“Whatcha gonna do when it’s all overand you’ve got nothing to show for it/take a look around and you’ll see that/you’ve already found what you came for/ it’s here for the taking/ it’s mine.” The song ends rather abruptly after those lines.]

Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Is that what you were going for?

Yeah. I’ve talked about this a lot recently and I’m reluctant to give away too much of the specifics, the lyrics and the meanings behind that stuff. I feel like it’s not fun for people. And I think it’s pretty obvious. It’s not so opaque. It’s easy to get some meaning from it. I don’t need to give the exact details, you know?

When you come here, it’s just you playing alone?

Yeah, the week the album came out I played some shows with my band. I’m doing these shows opening for the Decemberists alone. In the fall, I’ll be going on a much larger tour with the band again. It’s something I’ve been doing a lot in the last few years: switching off between playing by myself and playing with the band.

It’s fun and obviously, economically it’s more feasible to do a set by myself. It allows me to play more too, which is good. But it’s not my preferred way of playing, I think. But I’m enjoying it more and more. Especially getting to play these shows with the Decemberists, where we’re playing pretty big theaters. They have a very… I don’t know what the word is – generous or loyal or open kind of audience. It’s not like they’re streaming in. They’re there when I start playing, which I think is kind of incredible. Most of them don’t know who I am. So [there’s] no pressure. It’s kind of a weird exercise, playing for 30 minutes in front of, sometimes 1000, 2000  people that are listening to you. And they don’t know what to expect and they don’t have any [expectations]. It’s kind of bizarre. It’s not like playing my own show at all.

Are you up there playing guitar with backing tracks, or how does it work?

I’m mostly just playing guitar and singing. And then I do a few songs with backing tracks too.

What kind of set up do you have?

I just use an iPod with tracks on it.

I don’t know if this is something that you want to give away, but the writing at the bottom of the lyric sheet, is that Greek?

Yeah. [Laughs]

What does it say?

Oh, it just says, “Thank you and lots of love to you.” It’s [for] friends of mine in Athens. It’s nothing too mysterious.

Yeah, but there’s a level of intrigue when you can’t figure out what it is. Is there anything else you want to add before you go back to waiting to hear about your car repair?

I like Pittsburgh. I’m excited to come back to Pittsburgh. Doing the show that I did with the Warhol has made me really… I don’t know, I have an affinity…I love Pittsburgh now. I didn’t have that feeling four years ago but now I really love it.

What do you like about it?

I love the way that it looks. I think that it’s incredibly beautiful. You guys all know that. Just the way the city is laid out. I get lost there which I think is kind of unusual. I’m a thrift store junkie, a vintage clothing junkie and there’s lots of good places to buy clothes there. I’ve been to baseball games there.

I just think it’s nice, especially in the summer. It’s just pleasant. There are some great places where you can just get a beer and eat. There aren’t that many places that feel different. And Pittsburgh is one of them. I would put it with New Orleans and San Francisco. It has an identity.

That’s good to hear. Because people always put it down. Thanks for taking the time today. Considering what you’re going through with your car, I’d be gnashing my teeth if I was in the same positions.

Well I’ll start doing that as soon as we hang up. No, I’m kidding. I’m in a pleasant suburb of Montreal. The sun is out. Things could be a lot worse.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

CD Review: Dave Liebman/Tatsuya Nakatani/Adam Rudolph - The Unknowable

Dave Liebman/Tatsuya Nakatani/Adam Rudolph
The Unknowable

When Dave Liebman's name last appeared on this site, it came with two releases - a tribute to John Coltrane in a quintet with saxophonist Joe Lovano and in a duet with pianist Martial Solal, the latter bringing vitality to standards that have no doubt been played hundreds of times. The Unknowable puts the saxophonist in a completely different setting, bringing the same level of skill and energy: an improvised set of tracks with two percussionists.

Tatsuya Nakatani and Adam Rudolph are not your average percussionists either. Nakatani - who utilizes gongs, metal percussion, standard percussion and, on one track, a trap kit - has played with numerous free jazz improvisers and as a solo artist. Adam Rudolph is an expert hand drummer who leads the electric Moving Pictures octet and Go: Organic Orchestra, which has included upwards of 30 players. Both bring different concepts to the table. Rudolph often plays flowing pulses while Nakatani contributes more atmospheric sounds, sometimes in the form of scraping metal. That can often have the effect of nails on the chalkboard but here it lends a sense of intrigue to the music. With Rudolph also doing live electronic processing and picking up a thumb piano, Fender Rhodes (Liebman does too on one track) and strings that add a groove in a few places, the sounds never stay in one place.

Liebman gets ample opportunity to cut loose and he makes the most of it. With some delay effects on his soprano, he wails with abandon during the title track while one of his co-horts plays what sounds like a gamelan. In addition to blowing free, he constructs a deeply melodic tenor line in "Present Time" while Rudolph attacks his congas and Nakatani scrapes up some industrial clatter behind them. For contrast, this is immediately followed by the tranquil "Distant Twilight." Nothing on The Unknowable exceeds five minutes, guaranteeing that everything lasts as long as the inspiration continues. Even in the wilder pieces, like the percussion-only romp "Transmutations" the forward direction is always clear.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

CD Review: Ben LaMar Gay - Downtown Castles Never Block The Sun

Ben LaMar Gay
Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun
(International Anthem)

Ben LaMar Gay first showed up on my radar as a member of Mike Reed's Flesh and Bone, appearing on the landmark album named for the group that came out on 482 Music last year. But the Chicago cornetist, like many in that city, stays active in a several different projects. Among them, he's worked with Makaya McCraven, Nicole Reed, Matthew Lux and the future funk project Bottle Tree.

On top of all that, Gay recorded seven complete solo albums on his own, which have apparently been sitting dormant on his home computer until now. Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun serves as both a solo debut for him and something of a compilation, gathering tracks from this elusive septet of releases-to-be. Anyone looking for a direct line from his work with Reed or Jaimie Branch (he guested on her Fly or Die album last year) will be left scratching their head. ("Muhal" may or may not be a tribute to Muhal Richard Abrams but it doesn't sound anything like one. Anyone who likes to say, "what the hell is this," as they lean in closer to the speakers to hear the answer to that question will have their intrigue satisfied.

If Downtown Castles feels like a compilation, it recalls collections from the early '80s when labels thought nothing of putting sonic experimentation next to music with a groove. My memory of college radio is colored by albums like the Cherry Red label's Perspectives and Distortion which followed that path. Diversity was the order of the day and it made sense.

Beyond that, this album  sounds like the catholic interests of a musician unafraid to jump from style to style. Keyboards and loops factor heavily into the music. Sometimes, like "Jubilee," the dizzying layers of clipped loops only link up because the samples run in sync. What they run in sync sounds chaotic, but Gay nevertheless finds room for one of the album's infrequent brass solos. Just prior to this track "Music for 18 Hairdressers" is built on layers of rhythms that evoke percussive hair cutting. "Galveston" has a long loop reminiscent of Eno's Music for Airports, along with strings that sound like they're transmitted via walkie-talkie.

Elsewhere, Gay adds some vocals to the spare instrumentation of "A Seasoning Called Primavera" whose lyrics combine romance and cooking - and some noises that sound like laptop alarms. "Swim Swim" also features laidback vocals over a poly-rhythms that don't make it easy to feel the downbeat.

He doesn't complete abandon his cornet either. "Miss Nealie Burns" has an old time feel, with banjo and squawky, muted trumpet. The long tones of "Me, Jayve & the Big Bee" feature cornet and saxophone, with an end that sounds like the track might have come from a street recording. (At 1:45 it almost feels like more a tease than anything else.) The closing "Oh no...not again!" includes drums and tuba playing a funky groove for cornet and vocals, which, after falling apart, finds the guitar riff going into 7/4, along with either a melodica or accordion and a wild drumming.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Ben LaMar Gay might be surprised by the contents of Downtown Castles (the title coming from a lyric on one of the seven albums, which may or may not appear herein). But that's quite the idea that fuels this collection. You never know what will come next.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

More Thoughts on Record Collecting, after the Pittsburgh Record Fest

Now that I'm working full time again, I feel a little better about going out and by records impulsively. Not that I really had to stop over the past year or so. But I definitely curbed my spending habits. Trips to used record stores were often just browsing sessions, or moments of anxiety over whether or not I should plunk down money that should go somewhere else.

My series of Bud Shank purchases, documented in a post recently, should offer some indication of where my head is. But also, there's another feeling I've had recently. It's not exactly hoarding but... well, maybe it is.

Jerry Weber, the former owner of Jerry's Records, is now doing online auctions at Since selling the business (the store remains open under new management), and getting knee surgery last year, he started the auction site about the beginning of 2018. In one of his first auctions, he was offering a Clifford Brown/Max Roach album on EmArcy. The exact title escapes but it was probably Brown and Roach Incorporated. I own an original copy of the album, having bought it online. It's great; I highly recommend it, and pretty much anything with Clifford Brown's name on it. Even though I already have it, I thought it would be cool to own another copy. Mine is a little worn. I don't think Mercury - EmArcy's parent company - pressed very good vinyl. Many of mine have a bad hiss on them. Album covers at that time weren't really built to last, in terms of spine and seams. In EmArcy's case, the laminate on the album looks quite weather beaten.

The latter criteria is really what probably tempted me. I like a good album cover. While I did relish the idea of owning another copy, I bid relatively low, knowing in the back of my mind that it was a crazy purchase. And I didn't get it anyway, which is a good life lesson. Hopefully the winner appreciates both the physical item and the music therein.

Pittsburgh Record Fest #19 took place last Friday night at Spirit Hall & Lodge. I sold records at #18 back in December but that wasn't going to happen last week. In fact, I was running the Talent Show at my son's school, so whether I made it all was up in the air until the time came. I arrived nearly three hours into the Fest. In some ways, an event like this can be compared to a good garage sale: Get there early to get first dibs on all the good stuff, or don't go at all. The upshot is, go late and people are willing to make deals so they can carry less weight back to the car.

Since it was late, I decided to gravitate only to the boxes that said "Jazz" on them. I could really run a risk of blowing what money I had with me in a matter of minutes, if I looked through everything. I also wouldn't get anywhere quickly. My thoughts from the top of this entry came back to me because the first thing I considered was a copy of Roland Kirk's Slightly Latin. Yes, I already have it, but my copy doesn't have the gatefold sleeve with the cool booklet pasted inside. It was tempting.

But it's not one of Roland's best albums. And I can't remember the price tag but it was either too high for a duplicate buy or low enough to mean that the record was trashed. Back it went.

The picture above shows what I came away with. The Jazz Abstractions album seemed like a no-brainer. I have the two Ornette Coleman tracks on a cassette somewhere but they take on a different life in the context of the whole album. My jury is still out on the idea of Third Stream music. Plus, "Abstraction," the opening track which also has Ornette, sounds about as crazy any large-scale AACM piece. Maybe even more deranged. Thank you, Gunther Schuller! The side-long variants on Monk's "Criss Cross" already sound cool so this is going to be worth coming back to.

The vendor next to the one who had Jazz Abstractions pointed me right to his jazz box, where he started giving me the hard sell on A Story Tale, an album on Jazzland (an offshoot of Riverside) that was co-led by tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan and alto saxophonist Sonny Red. The band included Elvin Jones and Tommy Flanagan. Dude was virtually foaming at the mouth over this one, insisting that he'd cut me a deal since the cover was water-damaged.

I had heard about The Jazz Modes album a while ago, a group with the frontline of French Horn player Julius Watkins and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. It too had some water damage but looked to be in decent shape, especially for an Atlantic album with a black label. The album has some pretty interesting writing by Watkins, with a few by Rouse. Sadly, it also has soprano vocalist Eileen Gilbert as the stereotypical fish out of water, wordlessly singing over three of the seven songs.

The same guy also had a Chris Connor album on Bethlehem that caught my eye. I'm not much for vocalists, but Connor does something to me. Her version of "Lush Life" is my favorite interpretation, because she really imbues the words with drama that brings them to life. The first time I ever heard her was on a 10" that my parents owned. Her voice, to my ears at that time, was like a cross between Chet Baker and my mother (who wasn't a professional singer, by the way).

I put This Is Chris back in the box. "Lush Life" is on the equally plainly titled CHRIS which I already own. I asked the guy how much for the other two. "$20. But you have to take Chris Connor with you." I wasn't going to argue there. I like deals.

For the remainder of my time there, I floated around, saying hi to vendors I knew, including my co-worker Neil, who I didn't even know was selling. I could have picked up a copy of Nirvana's Bleached for $11, making my first Nirvana purchase even. But I blew it off. (If I'm really jonesing for it, I have his email.)

Another old friend, who specializes in garage and psych rock, had a copy of Rock and Roll Disco with Fat Albert and the Junkyard Gang. One Fat Albert album has become a coveted item online, because it contains the songs that were used on the Saturday morning cartoon show. Not sure if this was it, I started looking at it. "You can just take that," my friend said. It looked pretty beat and soon it was clear that it wasn't the rare one, but I figured why not. One less thing for him to pack. However when I tried to play it yesterday, I think I heard my stylus yelp at all the scratches. That is why kids records can fetch so much money when they're in pristine shape: it's impossible to find one that's been treated so gently.

Monday, May 14, 2018

CD Review: Dan Weiss - Starebaby

Dan Weiss

After recording a suite that was built upon particular drum breaks played by Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell, Kenny Clarke, Tony Williams and Philly Joe Jones, Dan Weiss has created a vastly different album. Starebaby combines the visceral, weighty attack of heavy metal together with the influence electronic music and improvisation. His skill with Indian beat cycles, coming from his experience as a tabla player, factors into the compositions, as does his interest in music from the Twin Peaks television series. In fact much of Starebaby's eight tracks sound like soundtrack music, developing slowly, as if they're keeping pace with visuals. (I often hear music that way, but this time, it's not just me.)

The more intriguing aspects of the album comes with the kindred spirits who join Weiss (who has played with Rudresh Mahanthappa, Chris Potter and Jen Shyu, to name a few). All are well known as progressive improvisers in various styles, and they all apparently share Weiss' affinity for the heavy stuff. Bassist Trevor Dunn's inclusion might not be a surprise, as he's played in harder rock bands like Mr. Bungle and appeared in some of John Zorn's heavier groups. Guitarist Ben Monder has always been skilled at peeling off guitar lines that sound loud even at a low volume, so he feels like a natural for this set. But also along for the ride are both Craig Taborn and Matt Mitchell, both on piano and electric keyboards. The album utilizes their respective skills at creating musical scenes, but they can clearly shred with the best of them.

The reason heavy metal doesn't get much respect can be attributed to the excess that has become part and parcel over the years. The big hair, the rapid guitar solos (which, after awhile, start to sound like cartoon characters singing, "Figaro, Figaro" too fast), and the Cookie Monster vocals - they've all contributed to the comic value. If a band can do all that in 5/8, just remember my old tenet: it ain't what time signature you play it, it's what you play in that time signature.  (If this sounds like the thoughts of an ill-informed codger, you might be in the wrong place.) But strip away all that excess, and the best part still remains - the weight of the sound. Like Bobby Previte's Mass album from last year, Starebaby avoids the excessive pitfalls here.

Weiss doesn't use this material as a chance to show off his flashy drum skills. In fact, he almost prefers to sit back and let his playing add color to the work of his bandmates. Many of his parts are built predominantly on snare drum whacks, which are pushed in the mix to make sure they land between the listener's eyes. When he does play solos, they aren't solos so much as beat cycles. This is noticeable during what sounds like a free passage in "Episode 8." In "The Memory of My Memory" the cycle of beats keeps shifting, ratcheting the intensity each time, especially when Monder grabs onto the section.

The aforementioned tracks move slowly but with a sense of determination, as the sections rise and fall in volume and velocity. "Episode 8," over 14 minutes in length, does this particularly well. Other parts of the album almost feel too focused on riffs and suspense, at the expense of resolve. Granted, an album like this is most definitely going to have a foreboding, murky feel to it most of the time, but it could use more moments like the brutal coda of "The Memory of My Memory" or Monder's freak out in "Depredation." However the jazz-metal heads (who are out there) will no doubt eat this up.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Looking Back Over a Few Weeks: Ben Goldberg/Michael Coleman, Nathan Davis

In the print media world, it's no big deal if an article about an event runs 10 days after the event happened. In the online world, it feels like I'm behind the times if it takes me that long to blog about something. But I'm here and you're here and you should know what you missed anyway.

On Saturday, April 28, clarinetist Ben Goldberg and keyboardist Michael Coleman played a show at Hambone's, in the neighborhood of Lawrenceville. Hambone's isn't exactly a bastion of free improvised music, but it's still a great joint, with a good sound system and plenty of seating. And bar food, for those who are so inclined. 

It was clear, walking through the door that the line between the bar room and the music room was going to be a serious dividing line that night. No one in the bar was rowdy, but during the quieter moments of the music, conversations could be hearing spilling through the doorway, even though a plastic shade was strategically hung over the doorway to cut out the sound.

Apologies to Mortis, who opened the show. I arrived 10 minutes into Goldberg and Coleman's set. There have been a handful of clarinet players involved in adventurous jazz but Goldberg is one who really makes me want to hear more clarinets in this setting. He plays with such a strong, deep tone on his B-flat instrument, making it resonate in all sorts of warm ways that I can't get enough of it.

He and Coleman recently released Practitioner, an album of works by Steve Lacy. Taken from the late soprano saxophonist's Hocus Pocus - Book H of Practitioners, the pieces were composed to be used as complex exercises, built on challenging lines. Watching Goldberg play, it was clear they could be quite the workout, with rapid lines that contained convoluted melodies. Not only did he dig into them, he used them as gateways to improvisation. Along with his clarinet, he used his contra-alto clarinet, which has a tone that could be mistaken for a bass clarinet or a contra-bass clarinet, for those who don't know their low reeds or forgot what they read on the back of CD covers.

Coleman was surrounded by a bank of keyboards and mixers. He accompanied Goldberg's playing with atmospheric swirls and sounds and he worked as a second melodic instrument, playing his own lines built out of a good melodic sense and a dexterity that helped him reshape the lines as he created them. During one particularly inspired moment, Coleman kept repeating a melody as his instruments seemed to make it melt and get lower with each repetition.

Not only does Practitioner include six Lacy works, it also includes baseball cards, one for each of the musicians who either played or wrote the music (the duo, Lacy, etc.) and the artists who inspired it and created the artwork for the cover and recorded it. Alas there is no flat, hard piece of bubblegum to go with it, like the Topps baseball cards of bygone days. But Goldberg and Coleman provide enough to chew on otherwise, pun intended but true anyway.


By now it's common knowledge that saxophonist Nathan Davis died on April 8, but his passing is not something I feel I should have overlooked. The saxophonist was a fixture in Pittsburgh,  almost to the point where he was taken for granted. But his creation of a Jazz Studies department at the University of Pittsburgh in 1969 was pretty groundbreaking, coming at a time when jazz musicians weren't often held in higher regard than hippie groups. I remember Davis telling us in his History of Jazz class about walking across campus and running into people who were surprised that he was a clean-cut well dressed guy and not someone more raggedy.

Hopefully the Pitt Jazz Seminar that he started - and which was continued by Geri Allen before she too passed last year - will still be maintained in coming years. I often bemoaned that Davis often drew from the same circle of players each year, with only a few wild cards thrown in on occasion. But I also realized that it gave aspiring musicians and fans a chance to hear these players speak at informal seminars, allowing us all to get close to them and bask in their history. And all the seminars were free!

Finally, at several of those Seminar concerts. Davis got a chance to really perform on tenor and soprano saxophone. Maybe it was the idea that he was among heavy hitters that spurred him onto higher levels, or maybe he just didn't get a chance to blow like that very often. Whatever it was, it left me with a greater appreciation for his technique. That musicianship, and his verbal insight, were a big part of Resonance's CD set Larry Young In Paris The ORTF Recordings that came out in 2016. Davis talks a great deal in the liner notes about how he connected in Paris with both trumpeter Woody Shaw and organist Young, who he was reticent to hire until he heard him play.

RIP Nathan. Um - I mean, Dr. Davis.

Monday, May 07, 2018

CD Review: Ceramic Dog - YRU Still Here?

Ceramic Dog
YRU Still Here?
(Northern Spy)

One of guitarist Marc Ribot's strongest qualities is the diversity of his work. As a sideman, his unique sense of melody and dry tone can bring life to a session. As a leader, his catalog includes delicate solo performances, self-indulgent noodling, faithful-but-brand-new takes on everything from disco classics to John Coltrane and Albert Ayler (to name few) and avant-rock that might touch on all of the above.

Ceramic Dog could be considered his punk, or perhaps no wave, band. Their third album is built on the fury of current times and Ribot spits out bile upon leaving the gate. Considering both the state of our union and the guitarist's activism with musician's rights and streaming, one should expect nothing less than fury. Feeling that way is, tragically, pretty easy. The challenge lies in channeling that into convincing music.

"Muslim Jewish Resistance" is built largely on a call and response lyric - "Muslim Jewish/ resistance/ we say never again/ we mean it!" While it gets repetitive, Briggan Krauss' screaming alto saxophone break keeps the energy from waning. "Fuck La Migra" tackles the immigration subject with lyrics that nearly fly by too rapidly over the thrash noise. One line sticks out in shining glory, though: "I think the President is dumber than an artichoke." It offers proof that Ribot, bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith make a better punk band than most punk bands.

Sandwiched between those two tracks, the trio seems conscious of their weight of their words. The eight-minute "Shut the Kid Up" forgoes lyrics in favor of a mind-melting instrumental of slow power chords that build to a psychedelic crescendo. It couldn't have come at a better moment and it helps provide additional evidence of the group's skills.

That track also adds direction to a set that doesn't always have it in the first half.  In "Personal Nancy," Ribot opens the album by barking, among other rights, "I got a right to say, 'fuck you,'" but simply saying isn't always enough. "Pennsylvania 6 6666" blends a slinky jazz groove with a lyric about brutal treatment in the state, where "everybody is white." The song's back story, pulled from the album's press release, explains that Ismaily was a victim of racist attacks in the commonwealth. (Shazad, on behalf of my state, I want to apologize and let you know you're always welcome in Pittsburgh.) Without that info, however, the six-minute track just drags without really expanding on the concept.

YRU Still Here picks up energy as it goes. The second half also includes "Orthodoxy," an Eastern European-style instrumental and "Freak Freak Freak on the Peripherique," a rubbery funk romp with juvenile lyrics that still sound funny thanks to their distorted delivery. Ceramic Dog changes style with nearly every track by then, giving the album plenty of scope. Now if only they could be experienced in a nearby dive bar or DIY space. That would bring this music to life.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

CD Review: Gunhild Seim/Marilyn Crispell/David Rothenberg - Grenseland

Gunhild Seim/Marilyn Crispell/David Rothenberg

"I feel like you can hear us wondering about the world." - Gunhild Seim, talking about this album, on her blog.

Spring is arriving in Pittsburgh late, in fits and starts at that. If the belated start of this season needed a soundtrack (or some sort of sonic motivation), it could be found in the title of track of this set of performances by trumpeter Gunhild Seim, pianist Marilyn Crispell and clarinetist/bass clarinetist David Rothenberg. Seim and Rothenberg also use electronics throughout the album, which accounts for the bird-like chirps that accompany Seim's long tones, which initially sound like a shakuhachi. A bass note drones beneath while Crispell (credited with percussion) clicks sticks in the background. She plays a few pensive chords too, just to add to the ambiance. After nearly six minutes, Rothenberg picks up his bass clarinet, joining Seim with his own morning call. The whole 10-minute track comes across like sunrise on a marsh, with calls of birds not exactly blending together but creating a full song regardless.

Crispell and Rothenberg released an album of engaging duets on ECM in 2010, One Dark Night I Left My Silent House. The pianist played both her standard instrument and a piano soundboard that was in the studio, which provided percussive scrapes and drones. Rothenberg switched between Bb clarinet and bass clarinet, expressive on both.

One Dark Night worked like a set of conversations but Grenseland sounds more like three people getting to know each other. (Seim implies in the blog entry that she knew Crispell but was only introduced to Rothenberg prior to the session.) Her observation at the top of this page proves to be pretty accurate. As a result, there is a tentative feeling to many of the tracks. In fact, Crispell doesn't play piano in earnest (as opposed to fits and starts) until the fourth track. Prior to that, she adds percussion and, in "Tundra" she sings over a drone, while more electronic "birds" join her in the background. Her vocalizing adds color to the mood, and offers a surprise to any longtime listeners curious to hear her. But there is still a lingering desire for more piano.

Seim, a Norwegian composer and trumpet player who already has a sizable discography, stands forward throughout the album. Her strong tone and uncomplicated lines recall Wadada Leo Smith (if not Miles Davis, thanks to the inclusion of electronics). Although she and her friends take their time getting to know each other, the two tracks that follow "Grenseland" take things forward a great deal, especially "Lines and Angles" where the bass clarinet and trumpet really coalesce and move together.

Grenseland sits in that unique realm between free improvisation and ambient music. Sometimes one note creates a page of depth, while at other times it could use some support. In this case, the music ponders what the next meeting of these three minds will yield.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Alex Harding/Lucian Ban and Stephen Crump's Rhombal in Pittsburgh

City of Asylum brought two out of town acts to Alphabet City over the past week. Actually, it's a regular occurrence, with a lot of visiting groups playing there. I just haven't gotten over there as much as I'd like, new job and all. It was a disappointment to miss Jonathan Finlayson when he was here in March.

The duo of baritone saxophonist Alex Harding and pianist Lucian Ban are both skilled at free improvisation but their set last Thursday was built on soulful, spiritual music as much as it was on wild blowing, using one approach to get to the other.

Harding just visited Pittsburgh about five weeks ago, as a member of Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. But City of Asylum regulars have said they remember him as a member of Oliver Lake's Big Band, which came to town a few years ago, playing under the tent in the nearby park. That night, Harding played a solo that got listeners on their feet, somewhat literally. Last week, as far as I know, marked Ban's first visit to Pittsburgh. Among his work, he released Sounding Tears last year, a collaboration with saxophonist Evan Parker and violist Mat Maneri. Harding and Ban, though, have been playing together for 20 years in various situations.

After opening with the moody "Deep Blue," the duo paid tribute to Cecil Taylor with "We're Playing for CT." They didn't try to recreate the pianist's style but Ban's fingers were flying gracefully over the keys while Harding put forth some fast tonguing, later taking the neck of his horn and blowing that way. During the evening, the saxophonist often stopped mid-solo to moan empathetically along with the music.

Ban frequently stood up and hulked over the piano while playing, occasionally sticking his left hand into the instrument to create a percussive sound when his right hand struck the keys. During one unnamed tune, his attack made the piano sound like the cimbalom, the Hungarian instrument similar to a dulcimer. Harding switched to bass clarinet for this one, deepening the sound of the evening even further.

Harding retold a story about a gig at Cecil Bridgewater's club in New Jersey, A woman in the audience asked Ban if he was born in the South. When he explained that he hails from Transylvania, she still insisted, he must be from that South. A ballad they played toward the end of the set confirmed that lyrical quality the woman heard. It also gave Harding a chance to growl through his horn, making the whole thing turn a corner.

On Sunday night, bassist Stephan Crump came to town with his quartet Rhombal. Their 2017 album featured Tyshawn Sorey on drums, but last night, he was replaced by Richie Barshay. Tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and trumpeter Adam O'Farrill appeared on both the album and onstage last night.

With the Spring weather finally upon us, Crump said he was able to practice outside earlier that afternoon surrounded by birds. "Those birds were so happy," he explained at the start of the set. His compositions cover a variety of directions. "Nod for Nelson" had the horns playing spare but significant lines over a rolling, grooving bass and drums part. Conversely, Crump and Barshay kept it spare in "Grovi" while O'Farrill and Eskelin played some sharp, quick phrases. O'Farrill played with a unique blend of traditional technique and original ideas. His tone had a bright quality that sounded a lot like Clifford Brown to these ears. What he created with that sound was something altogether different: well-executed statements, extended lines, broken up occasionally by sharp rhythmic blasts.

Eskelin, who first came to Pittsburgh about 25 years with his wild trio with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black, physically got into his playing, literally leaning into his music. He wasn't always busy and wild with his solos. But his ideas were well-chosen. The music often called for him and O'Farrill to blend lines, answering each other or building together.

Crump is also a physical player, leaning into his bass, mouthing his parts along with his instrument. This visceral type of performance could be distracting if he weren't such a strong player. He also straddled riffs with longer lines, bowing harmonics that could barely be heard but maintained the energy. Barshay locked right in with Crump, clearly in sync at the end of a tour. He frequently switched from sticks to brushes mid-song, even playing with his hands during "Pulling Pillars/Outro for Patty."

After a few months in limbo, Alphabet City once again has a bar/restaurant set up in the building. It's a great combination, along with their bookstore. However, on both nights, some of the dining patrons thought nothing of talking loudly during the set, which made for a slight distraction. For example, when Crump introduced a song that was inspired by walking his sons to school, the talking covered up the fact that the Ornette-ish piece was"Skippaningam" from their self-titled album. Luckily the performers didn't mind on either night.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

I'm On A Bud Shank Kick

It's hard to say exactly what inspired it, but I've been on a bit of a kick for Bud Shank, the late alto saxophonist. The year did start out with me being on a Charlie Parker kick, which has continued through a few other alto players. But the current feeling could also be a byproduct of reading about the push away from CDs back to vinyl, which had me thinking more about hearing this music in the format in which it originally appeared. 

Back also in February, I picked up two albums on Pacific Jazz, one by bass trumpeter Cy Touff and the other a meeting of Chico Hamilton, Jim Hall, John Lewis, Percy Heath and Bill Perkins called 2° East 3° West. Maybe that's why I started wandering around Discogs and started looking at Shank albums. Or maybe it was the write-up about the long out-of-print Mosaic box that compiled all of Bud's early Pacific Jazz albums. It could be all of that, combined with the idea of communing a little with my dad, the person (along with my mom, of course) who first placed Bud in my world. 

Whatever the reason, I pulled out Jazz at Cal-Tech (a live album with saxophonist Bob Cooper which includes an especially rambunctious Chuck Flores on drums) and wanted to hear more of his early stuff. Some of it might be available for streaming, but my idea of new musical discovery doesn't include being strapped to a chair in front of a computer while listening. Purchasing a copy of the Mosaic box seemed a little cost prohibitive. I started trying to figure out how many albums from the set that I already had and tried to do the math and figure out what else would complete it. (The set doesn't have much in the way of alternate takes so it wouldn't be as if I"m missing out on rarities.)

While thinking about this post, I almost forgot that I've already written appreciations of Bud around the time that he died. Here is one of them, which references another one that I had written a few days before. So there's the context. Musically, it starts with these two 10" records, borrowed from my folks collection. 

The quintet session is a pretty good set, with six tunes penned by Shorty Rogers. One impressive thing about these early albums is that Shank didn't rely heavily on the typical mix of blues, ballads and standards. (More on that later.) Rogers' writing also attempts to move beyond the standard harmonic changes. "Shanks Pranks" and "Casa De Luz" might not be standards-in-waiting, but they do stick in your head after. The horns play unison melodies on several of them, which avoids a thin alto/trumpet blend in favor of a sort of thick sound, thanks to Rogers' use of a fluegelhorn. This session was later reissued on Pacific Jazz on a 12" album with another quintet date with saxophonist Bill Perkins. I bought a copy of it off of eBay that was pretty beat up (one song gets stuck in the groove!), which made me wary of albums rated G+ after that. When this Shank kick started rolling, I found a replacement copy locally for cheap that was in much better shape.

Somewhere in my house, I had a cassette dub of Bud Shank and Three Trombones but I was determined to hear the vinyl again, which led to a search through my mom's house. (It took a while but I finally uncovered it.) Bob Cooper doesn't play on it, but he handled the arrangements, and penned most of the tunes. The 'bones are played by Stu Williamson, Bob Enevoldson and Maynard "What Happened to My Trumpet" Ferguson. It's also an upbeat session, full of that West Coast/Birth of the Cool-inspired sororities. The version of "You Don't Know What Love Is" has a really mysterious, dark feel to it. Pity that the folks' record gets stuck during that song too!

It was good to hear those records again but I wanted more. One copy of Bud Shank Plays Tenor had been sitting on Discogs awhile, for $17. A review on called it a nice album, but no great shakes. I frequently went onto Discogs to see it if was still there, and imagined owning it someday. But a few weeks ago, having a nice paycheck from a new job - and seeing a copy in similar condition fetch $90 in an auction - I took the plunge. The record and cover were in great shape, a little worn but in a way that added character to it rather than distracting from it.

This time around, Bud pulled out the standards book, playing classics like "All The Things You Are," "Thou Swell" and "Body and Soul." His regular quartet of Flores, Claude Williamson (piano) and Dave Prell (bass) back him up. Shank's approach to tenor draws on the same type of sprightly melodic attack that can be heard in his alto playing at that time. It's sort of a cool Lester Young-based approach, maybe like Stan Getz without the smoky quality.

On "Body and Soul," a song already done umpteen times prior to this session (1960), he begins by embellishing the melody instead of stating it plainly. By the final section of the chorus, he's stated enough theme to improvise off of it. Williamson's solo has some lounge-y glissandos, but he balances that with some heavy chord articulations too. Around this time, Shank was making albums with Bob Cooper where both put down their saxophones in favor of flute and English horn, respectively, which came to epitomize the lightness of West Coast jazz. (Though having heard some of those albums, they aren't half-bad in retrospect.) Plays Tenor might not be heavy but the melodic swath of Shank's playing isn't lightweight either.

Bud Shank Quartet represents a pinnacle in both the Shank PJ catalog and in the collection overall. The above picture shows how William Claxton's photo of Shank laying on the Sunday comics was used on the original album and how it was re-appropriated (bastardized, perhaps) on a reissue years later. (For a personal story about the latter album, see one of the previous posts linked above.) In some ways, the cover shows how beautifully visual and musical art were coming together in the late 1950s as long playing records were becoming the standard in jazz music.

The album actually came out prior to the Tenor album but my copy just arrived this week, following the other album. It showed a few more surprises that the quartet was taking. Shank played flute on the 10" session with Shorty Rogers, but here he opens the album with flute version of "A Night In Tunisia" which really shows off his chops on the instrument. On a few tracks he plays both flute and alto, demonstrating his ear for sonic shifts within the music. Further, Williamson's "Tertia" is a three-part suite with a slow beginning, a walking blues and a rapid closing. "All Of You" begins slow for the theme, only to cut into an upbeat tempo. Ravel's "Lamp is Low" begins perhaps esoterically with the flute bringing out its classical origins, but it moves into a blowing section with the alto back in place, ready for action. While there are only two originals out of eight tracks (both by Williamson), the approach to the music continues to show fresh approaches that Shank was taking with his material.

Shank of course had a very long and varied career. When he had a crossover hit (with Chet Baker) of the Beatles' "Michelle," it started him on a more commercial path that led to things like California Dreaming, an album I lifted from my parents but still haven't had the guts to play. Along with that came Magical Mystery (which I owned briefly) and A Spoonful of Jazz (yes, Lovin' Spoonful songs, which has been described as being only for the diehard Shank completist). During the '80s, after several albums with the L.A.4, which Shank and Ray Brown admittedly formed to play more accessible (aka lighter) jazz, Shank stopped playing flute altogether and came back as a bopper, with more weight to his sound than he had shown in the early days.

There are still a few other Shank albums on PJ from that late '50s/early /60s period that I'm hunting for. Another quartet session with essentially the same name (with a drawing of Bud on the cover) has been seen on a few sites in various conditions, for somewhat decent prices.  About half of that appears on I Hear Music, but when you hear it in the original form, the way it was meant to be heard, it can heighten your perspective on the session.

New Groove, on which trumpeter Carmell Jones (who later played on Horace Silver's Song for My Father), seems to be the most coveted Shank album from that era, with copies few and far between. Plus there's also a 10" that Shank did with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and a string section. That could go either way and it later appeared on the Mosaic Select box, along with the Shank/Bob Cooper sessions. If I really want to hear it again, I could just check it out of the library.

But there's always the lure of the affordable Pacific Jazz originals, which can take me back to those early days of West Coast jazz. When I get hold of an original, part of the tactile experience is knowing that I'm holding an album that was once heard by someone right after it came out, when all of this music was new.

Happy Record Store Day, I Think

Another Record Store Day is upon us. Another chance to go out and buy records you don't really need, or want. And another chance to try and buy something that sounds really cool, only to find out that your favorite store only has one copy of it, and it's buried in a stack of vinyl being carried around by some shlub who doesn't appreciate it as much as you do.

Sounds pretty cynical, huh? Yes, it is.

I've felt both elated and jaded by Record Store Days in the past. There once was a time that the Attic, a record store in the nearby borough of Millvale, opened at midnight, and a line of people queued around the corner and down the street. Many of them looked to be in their 20s. I forget if it was that night or the next morning when I heard some of these same 20-something saying, "Excuse me," or "After you" when they bumped into me by a rack of RSD merch. Not something that you'll hear from your typical estate sale/garage sale record fanatic.

But I've also come home with records that weren't all that exciting when I got them out of the shrink wrap and put them on. "Why did I buy this?" I also thanked myself for not buying the $15 78 RPM edition of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." Somehow, I don't think my victrola would have been good for it.

Yet, Record Store Day lives on. And now that the Man is telling us that CDs are out, out, out, records are less of a novelty and more of a legit way to enjoy music again. Sure there are many of us believe that vinyl never went away and that every day can be Record Store Day. But rather than point my finger and say, "I'd told you," I am glad that other people understand.

This week, Pittsburgh City Paper ran an article in which CP writer Meg Fair and I collaborated on a piece about Record Store Day. I admittedly wrote long, knowing that some of it would be cut from the print issue. Consisting of block quotes from various people, it seemed like it was going to explore a few levels of the record industry, the pros and cons of vinyl and finally, offer a few perspectives from local shop owners about RSD. As so often happens, that was a bit much to cover in 900 words divided between two writers. Things got a little diluted.

For the benefit of those who are interested, the article can be found at this link. And here are some finer points that didn't make it into the piece. Along with two local record shop owners, they include guitarist Nels Cline. We spoke last fall to preview an upcoming performance in Pittsburgh. That day, he was waiting to get a test pressing of his new album by the Nels Clne 4. A casual talk about records turned into a 20-minute discussion about his experiences pressing vinyl and the frustrations with a format he loves. (Be sure to read his quote in the CP article.) Gotta Groove Records have pressed vinyl for a lot of local bands. When a test pressing for my my band the Love Letters sounded a little off-center, GG's Matt Earley was able to pinpoint the number of degrees by which it was off and fix it. That kind of perspective needs to be heard on this topic. Without further embellishment...


MATT EARLEY (Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Gotta Groove Records Inc., Cleveland, Ohio)
We listen to every test pressing and pass/fail it. And we give it a letter grade and keep notes on it internally. Because we do that, over 99% of the test pressings we ship, pass the first time from our customers. Most of the issues that we encounter on them, we’ve already fixed by the time they get to the customer’s hand. When we press the final production copies, we’re listening to every 26th copy off the press. We catch things that would go out to the marketplace if we didn’t take that approach. Really, that is probably one of the more defining things about us. Most plants have a single QA [quality assurance] person and sometimes that can mean a single QA person for 20 pressing machines. We have a QA person for every two pressing machines because we listen to that many records.

Candidly, Record Store Day has never been a huge part of our business. We do some Record Store day titles. I think this year we did around 15. Over the years, we’ve averaged about 15 to 25 Record Store Day titles. So it doesn’t really give us a huge spike. What does give us a huge spike at the beginning of the year is actually tour season. Most of what we do in are not reissues. Most of what we do are new artists,  touring artists. And a heck of a lot of records are sold on the road. So people start ordering records that they know are going to have tour support for, in December and January. Because unofficially, tour season starts in March with South By Southwest and continuing through the summer. We’ve always seen a natural spike at the beginning of the year, tied to tour season. In any given month we do anywhere from 100 to 200 new titles. When you factor in Record Store Day, and add about 15 titles, it’s not a huge part of the business

JEFF GALLAGHER (Juke Records, Pittsburgh)
The jury is still out whether this vinyl resurgence related to younger people is sustainable or not. I’m not sure. I think it goes either way 50/50. But one thing is that has really changed I think is that these folks rarely buy a record that they haven’t heard all the way through and know they want the vinyl record. When I was younger we took a lot of chances on records. Maybe you heard one song, maybe you heard someone talk about a record, maybe you liked the cover. You took a shot on it. We still have regular loyal customers who do that but most of the young people getting into this, they know that they’re going to like that record when they buy it. That’s very different.


You should ask me [how I feel about it] on April 22! We did have some conversations here about not doing it because it’s getting difficult to manage for a small shop like mine. It’s very risky because, when I buy this stuff, there’s no returning any of it. So you have to guess what’s right for our store in terms of the inventory that you bring in and the amount inventory.But we’re optimistic that we’re going to have a good day. We’re stocking a lot of the stuff that are smaller pressings in terms of the volume. It’s a touchy thing but we committed to it. We’re going big again and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that by 4:00 in the afternoon, we’ll have broken even.

FRED BOHN, JR. (The Attic, Millvale)
I think [RSD] is a great thing for independent record stores, especially for us. Every year you think it’s not going to get any bigger, but it gets bigger every year and there are more people into it. It gets a lot of people into the store. It’s probably the best form of advertising because you get a target audience of people who are looking to buy records. Record Store Day gives them a chance to see your store, maybe for the first time. Once they see what you have, they come back. It’s not a huge profit maker and I don’t know how many stores make a big profit on Record Store Day because everything is so expensive, But we do it to support our customers who support us year round, and also to get new customers. Last year we opened at 8 a.m., and the end of the line probably got into the store around noon. If you had told me this in 2000, I’d’ve told you that you were crazy! I don’t see 10-year-old people buying Nirvana records in 2018, and all of a sudden there it is.


There’s a lot of negative press on CDs at the moment too but that’s still a big market for us also. And the funny thing is, a lot of the people that sold all their vinyl at that time are coming back and rebuilding it again. People should think for themselves and not think what society needs them to do. If you don’t want them get rid of them. If you don’t think you’re going to use them there’s no need to have them hanging around. Records take up a lotta space.

NELS CLINE (Guitarist with Wilco, as well as numerous improvisation groups, including the Nels Cline 4, which just released a new album on Blue Note)
The whole audiophile thing is not my thing either. We used to listen to music on transistor radios and it sounded pretty magical. [Laughs] Put out your vinyl, just please make your compact discs because the improvised music community still makes underground compact discs and sells them at gigs. It’s the only thing they can afford to do. And, hey, at least the stuff’s going to be the right speed.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

CD Review: Caroline Davis - Heart Tonic

Caroline Davis
Heart Tonic

When Caroline Davis heard that her father had a heart arrhythmia, she started doing research on the topic. This turn of events occurred right as the alto saxophonist was finally settling into the New York music scene, having moved there from Chicago. She has studied and played with a wide range of musicians, with alto saxophonist Steve Coleman becoming one of her heroes. Although he has also written music inspired by the heart's function, Davis' work foregoes the knotted complexity of Coleman, creating instead something that feels introspective while still incorporating the different directions possible with the music.

Her solo on "Constructs," a 10-minute suite, represents a good introduction to Davis. Drummer Jay Sawyer sets a rolling tempo that doesn't seem to emphasize a solid downbeat, while the saxophonist's clear, strong tone delivers an extended set of thoughts, flowing initially, but eventually breaking into shorter phrases. As the piece moves forward, the tempo become elastic, eventually going into a vamp that feels like a breakdown, only to conclude in a tranquil denouement.

The album opens with a haunting organ chord that sounds like something lifted from an interlude on Miles Davis' Get Up With It. While keyboardist Julian Shore plays acoustic piano as well as electric counterpoints, this first statement serves as a way to grab listener's attention before "Footloose and Fancy Free" goes in an acoustic direction. The group plays in an understated mid-tempo but Davis' alto still burns during her angular solo. At the other end of the album "Ocean In Motion" drops a funky Rhodes riff into 9/4, added by extra percussion from Rogerrio Boccato.

Trumpeter Marquis Hill complements Davis' lines, creating a rich textures during the themes and frequently playing countermelodies with her. A few tracks have them trading fours in a manner not strictly bound by bar lines. Their exchange in "Dionysian" sounds more like a transcription of a conversation than a blowing vehicle. Following some strong declamatory statements in Davis' solo, the two horns drive home the feeling of the track.

Throughout, drummer Sawyer and bassist Tamir Shmerling sound like they're keeping to the background without getting flashy, but really they're adding essential drive to the music, sometimes playing different time signatures behind the rest of the band. Shmerling doubles Shore's piano line in a few tracks and gets a chance to reveal his own concepts on "Fortunes" in an extended solo, with organ washes and piano accompanying him.

It can be a challenge to take a family member's physical affliction and have it inspire music. There are many pitfalls that can be found on the way to writing. Davis finds a way on Heart Tonic to reflect on the situation and use that to explore her own ideas further. While ttaking a cerebral approach to the compositions, her quartet also brings a good deal of life to her ideas.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

A Personal Appreciation of Cecil Taylor

Playing right now: Cecil Taylor's appearance on Piano Jazz from 1994

I took a series of notes a few nights ago for an album review I was going to post here. Then on Friday, I received the devastating news that Cecil Taylor, the great pianist and figurehead of all that is avant-garde jazz (and more) has died at age 89. Yes, I find it devastating because of Cecil's stature in music, and the fact that he was one of THE few surviving revolutionaries on the level of John Coltrane. (In terms of that large stature, Sonny Rollins is one of the only ones left). But I connected somewhat with Cecil personally several years ago, so his death hits closer to home.

I'm not going to attempt to do a biographical salute to Cecil. For one thing, he probably wouldn't be into that and there are several out there right now that surely do a better job of explaining his approach to the piano and how it changed jazz and the idea of improvisation.

My earliest exposure to Cecil's music came around my senior year of high school. I was hanging around with my friend Steve Heineman, who was always willing to throw something on the turntable to open my ears to new things. (Steve played in punk bands but was well-versed in jazz and prog-rock.) He had a copy of the second volume of the Foundation Maeght Nights album, which picks up where Volume 1 left off, about 30 minutes into a performance. Without any pretense, the record drops you into the middle of a blistering attack on the piano amid wails from the saxophones of Jimmy Lyons and Sam Rivers, topped off with a barrage of drum rolls from Andrew Cyrille. Steve only played about a minute of it to give me a grasp of the intensity, which continues for 34 minutes. And there's still another album's worth of material from that performance. Clearly this pianist required some commitment from the listener.

A few months later I found a copy of 3 Phasis at the library and checked it out. The continuous piece was banded into shorter sections that ranged from soft and delicate to a glorious racket. While some the squonk they produced felt great, at times it got a little too intense for me. Still, I was intrigued.

Fast-forward to my birthday in 1990. My friend John Young, who was living in Charlottesville, North Carolina for a year, made me a tape of two Cecil albums that had been given to him, Conquistador and Live at the Cafe Montmartre (half of what was later released as Nefertiti the Beautiful One Has Come). The tape arrived right around the time that A&M had released In Florescence, a trio album that dared to get the pianist to play music in the five-minute range. I liked that record and played it on my college radio jazz show, but knew that I needed to hear his earlier work.

I practically wore that tape out. The two side-long pieces on Conquistador are astounding in the way they blended ensemble voices in sketchy themes (Jimmy Lyons on alto, Bill Dixon on trumpet, who for years I thought lost his lip during "With Exit" because of the way he was rasping; little did I know that was part of his style) and free improvisation that brings different contours to the music.

Cafe Montmarte scales the group down to just Cecil, Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray (Andrew Cyrille was on Conquistador). It begins with some lyrical gestures from Cecil, which emphasizes how out of tune the piano is, after just a few notes. Throughout the whole album, the trio sounds like they're having a real conversation, one person making strong points while the other two agree behind him. It was this album in particular that made me keep coming back, knowing that it was going to take a while to pick up on everything the group was doing.

By about the tenth listen, while either walking across campus with a borrowed Walkman, or sitting at home in my room, I felt like I got it. That might have been when I noticed that, somewhere in the middle of "D Trad That's What." Murray unceremoniously starts playing in tempo. Together, he and Cecil sound like Mal Waldron and and Ed Blackwell, or something like that. It's not bop, but an outgrowth of what Monk or Bud Powell had done. To some people it might have sounded like noodling nonsense, but I knew better. Something deeper was happening here. I needed to hear everything I could by Cecil, and read more about him.

About a year that happened I received a pull-out section from The Village Voice that coincided with some performance event that was happening in New York. Several essayists wrote about Cecil, describing key sections of his numerous albums. Some of what they wrote made sense, some went over my head, but it made me want to hear those albums, feeling like they would unlock some door and bring some wisdom and insight with it. I still have that Voice pullout somewhere, figuring that times like these would be a good to re-read it.

Then in 1997, my dream came true. Cecil was booked to perform at the Mellon Jazz Festival at a free outdoor show. As a freelancer for InPgh, I was determined to talk to him. Little did I know the herculean task of getting Mr. Taylor to agree to an interview. Twice I got him on the phone, and both times he set up times that we would speak - and blew them off.

After resigning myself to write the piece without fresh quotes from the man, I received a call from Mellon Jazz's promoter, who sneakily patched me into a conference call with Cecil. Outside of hearing Johnny Mathis say my name, there have been few thrills like hearing the maestro say, "Who IS this Mike Shanley?" It wasn't my best interview but I did get a few decent quotes out of him, along with a few haughty laughs when I asked how often he plays in the U.S.

The other info I gained from that talk was that he was interested in visiting the Andy Warhol Museum when he came to Pittsburgh. So the day after his performance, I drew upon my telemarketer's guts, called the Hilton Hotel, got Cecil on the phone and offered to escort him to the Warhol. If I remember correctly, he told me to call back in an hour - which I thought would be a blow off - and when he did pick up the second time, told me to meet him in the hotel restaurant where he would be having lunch.

Still expecting a blow off, I nevertheless made my way downtown and, sure enough found him and bassist Dominic Duval finishing up lunch. "Ah - the writer," he exclaimed as I stood at the table and introduced myself. He was in the middle of telling Duval about the time he tried to collaborate with Ornette Coleman, where their styles proved incompatible. I remember him getting ecstatic about his dessert and offering a bite to Duval, but not to me. Not that I care. I was happy that he paid for my coffee.

Sitting adjacent to this man who could thunder so loudly on the piano, I spent most of my time trying to make out what he was saying, his voice being so soft and low. He came across like an eccentric professor, extremely well-spoken and knowledgeable on a wealth of topics from around the world, and not one to rhapsodize about jazz music or elaborate on the creation of his own work, really. After lunch, he insisted on stopping at the hotel bar for a round, which became two, which meant that eventually, we never made it to the Warhol Museum before closing time.

That night, Thurston Moore was performing under the umbrella of the jazz festival, in an improvisational trio with drummers William Winant and Tom Surgal. Cecil said that drummer William Hooker had mentioned Thurston to him but he didn't know what it was all about. They did make it to the show that night, at Temple Rodem Shalom. The opening Vandermark 5 set really knocked my socks off but I thought Thurston's limitations were on display during his set. It felt like a lot of wanking and little in the way of real improv and connection with his conspirators.

Cecil, who had blasted some big-name jazz people during our conversation earlier in the afternoon, was much more complimentary. As he and Duval waited for their departing cab before the Moore set was over, Cecil gently said that Thurston had an interesting way of using sound and taking it places. At one point earlier in the evening, I ran into the publicist who connected me to Cecil during the interview. I told him that I hung out with the pianist that afternoon and he was really nice and friendly. His response - "Really?!" Maybe I had made a connection with one of the most impenetrable musicians. After all, when we parted ways earlier in the afternoon, he said he was glad to meet me.

Three years ago, I attempted something that I had desired to do for years. Still having a phone number for him, I called Cecil, quickly reintroduced myself and asked if he'd ever written a memoir because I'd like to help him write one. Instead of a quick hang-up, he said he had been considering it. Since I was going to be in New York for Winter Jazzfest and the Jazz Connect Conference, we made tentative plans to speak in person. I packed a few articles from JazzTimes to offer some credibility.

We never hooked up. At the Jazz Connect Conference, a few people reminded me of Cecil's eccentricities and shot my confidence. And the few times I called him, it rolled to voicemail. In fact there might not have been any room on the voicemail too. Not long after this, the story came out about the person who made off with Cecil's grant money from the Japanese government, which made me wonder if I could even get into the inner circle of Cecil Taylor's world now. Stories that appeared in an interview in The Wire last year implied that linear histories had as much to do with his life as following standard chord changes. In other words, nothing at all.

I just feel fortunate enough to have been able to sit at his feet (so to speak) and soak up his aura for those few hours in 1997. It's a nice memory to have while trying to getting lost during a few sides of One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye. 

Thanks, Cecil. I hope you were greeted by Lena Horne and John Coltrane in the next world. I know you adored her, and I'm sure you have a lot to discuss with him.

Monday, March 26, 2018

CD Review: Kris Davis & Craig Taborn - Octopus

Kris Davis & Craig Taborn

Kris Davis and Craig Taborn may or may not utilize all 20 of their collective fingers simultaneously throughout Octopus. But the sounds they create together often reveal the dense qualities that result when that many fingers are put into use. Whether they're taking turns playing a Cecil Taylor-esque idea in "Chatterbox" (the title is appropriate) while the other cuts loose on top of that idea, or they slowly expand on one of Taborn's three simple "Interruptions" pieces, the music feels dense yet absorbing.

The six tracks were recorded in the fall of 2016 during a tour the two pianists staged together. They hit the road due to the immediate rapport they both felt while recording Davis' Duopoly album, a series of duets with her and eight different musicians. It was the first time she and Taborn had ever played together, and they felt a collective energy as soon as they started.

Taborn and Davis blend so well that sometimes it's hard to tell where one player's part ends and the other picks up. For clarity, Davis is panned towards the left and Taborn to the right. (Her prepared piano ostinatos in "Ossining" gives her away for anyone not as able to separate their voices.) He initially sustains a series of clusters in "Interruptions One" while Davis runs freely. But as it builds, low notes are added to reinforce the chord-like suggestions, and they seem to be coming from Davis, even as her upper register playing seems like its overlapping with ideas from her partner.  Another "Interruption" is blended with Carla Bley's "Sing Me Softly Of the Blues," though once again, the distinction between the two - and the line between composition and improvisation - becomes a vague division.

Davis says in her liner notes that each night's performance was different, with sections of the compositions frequently abandoned in favor of improvised sections that became more and more expansive. Going on that idea, listening to the album might be more rewarding if the track titles are disregarded and it's treated as a spontaneous set of music, created through an intensive dialogue. That way, we're not left wondering,for instance, how much of Sun Ra's "Love in Outer Space" Davis and Taborn actually draw upon. Although it would be interesting to hear and compare these recordings to some of the other ones that Ron Saint Germain recorded each night.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

CD Review: Josh Sinton - krasa

Josh Sinton

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

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

Playing right now: Mary Halvorson Quartet Plays Masada Book Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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