Monday, August 13, 2018

CD Review: Rodrigo Amado - A History of Nothing/ The Thing - Again. Trost Records

Rodrigo Amado
A History of Nothing

Lisbon tenor saxophonist Rodrigo Amado continues to release a steady stream of albums, filled with strong free improvisation that incorporates the dynamics of compositions. Last year, he released The Attic, a strong trio session on Not Two with bassist Gonçalo Almeida and drummer Marco Franco. He's also featured inthe Lisbon Freedom Unit, which released Praise of Our Folly this year on Clean Feed. In addition to these he has released other albums of that were reviewed on this blog.

A History of Nothing features the saxophonist in the company of his longtime American friend  bassist Kent Kessler, as well as drummer Chris Corsano and saxophonist/trumpeter Joe McPhee. With a group like this, the rapport among the players is felt immediately. "Legacies" begins slowly and subdued, but the title track begins in a flurry of clucks and honks from McPhee's soprano saxophone and Amado's tenor. As the rhythm section moves rapidly beneath them, the two horns begin to move in ways that complement each other. Amado goes for long notes, overtones and growls while McPhee - whose tone nearly recalls that of John Coltrane - makes a longer statement.

For "Theory of Mind II (for Joe)," a CD-only track, Amado's melody initially trades his rugged tone for a smoky, straightforward delivery. That changes once Kessler finishes manhandling his instrument with a bow, making the mood a little wilder. McPhee lays out of this one, which gives the leader a chance to deliver some intense, raspy lines.

McPhee returns on "Wild Flowers" first on pocket trumpet, which begins the piece with some smeared, breathy sounds. He and Amado alternate, with McPhee switching back to soprano before both horns come together to close with a short line. Throughout the album, Kessler and Corsano inventively work with the two horns, not just supporting them but becoming part of the conversation. They open the final "The Hidden Desert" with some noise from each instrument. Corsano uses his own type of extended technique, with what sounds like a bow. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that the anchor of the slow bass pulse makes it feel like a ballad, relatively speaking. A pleasant surprise, of course.

The Thing
(Trost/The Thing Records)

The same Austrian label that released A History of Nothing has also released, or co-released, the latest by the trio of Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love. Calling themselves a "garage free jazz trio" at one point, they have collaborated with such divergent acts as Neneh Cherry and James Blood Ulmer, in addition to working well on their own.

Gustafsson is arguably the most visceral of European free jazz saxophonist this side of Peter Brotzmann. He has mastered reeds both big and small to create some heavy music in a series of far-flung collaborations. (I recall one writer slamming an album where Gustafsson played with Sonic Youth, essentially dismissing it as one-dimensional squonk).

Although Gustafsson left his bass saxophone at home on the day of this session, his tenor and soprano work just as well as a sonic canvas. More than half the album is taken up by the 21-minute "Sur Face," an epic that proves the Thing can do plenty more than strong squonk. Bassist Flaten bows a melody together with Gustafsson that leads to a strong solo from drummer Nilssen-Love. Then Flaten and Nilssen-Love lock into a loopy vamp, which provides the ideal background from some tenor overtones. Once it falls apart, amidst some angry rhino grunts, the trio creates some tranquility in the final moments.

Joe McPhee also makes a cameo on Again, bringing his raucous pocket trumpet to a reading of Frank Lowe's "Decision in Paradise." He even adds some vocal yells to make his point. The whole track owes as much to the Thing's, and McPhee's, spontaneity as it does to Lowe's template.

Flaten switches to bass guitar on "Vicky Di," running it through a distortion pedal, giving his solo a mangled, metallic sound. When his Thing-mates rejoin him, Gustafsson has switched to soprano sax adding more excitement to the music. Relatively brief by some album standards, Again presents plenty of ideas in that period of time.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Minibeast in Pittsburgh with Insect Factory & Skeletonized

Hopefully this won't simply come off looking like a love letter to Peter Prescott. But his appearance over the weekend with Minibeast served not only to entertain but to inspire as well.

Prescott is best known as the drummer of Mission of Burma, who were part of the Boston punk scene from about 1979 to 1982, disbanding only when guitarist Roger Miller developed tinnitus due to the loud volume of their performances. A few years after their story was told in Michael Azerrad's great book Our Band Could Be Your Life, Burma decided it was time to do the unthinkable and reunite. Time had done nothing to mellow their attack and the reunited lineup has released several albums, outliving their initial run.

When MoB first disbanded, Prescott launched Volcano Suns, which set a golden standard for songwriters who play drums. From behind his kit, he bellowed lyrics that were often pretty deep, usually pretty wry and often funny without being too obvious about it. With various lineup changes along the way, the Suns released six albums and toured frequently. One of those stops occurred on Easter Sunday 1990, where yours truly opened for them as part of a the Cure Experience, a parody of Robert Smith's band that many took as more of an homage. That night was also significant because Suns bassist Bob Weston borrowed the stations Easter Bunny outfit, which he wore backwards, He later stagedove during the set-closing "Testify" - and no one caught him. (He went to the hospital that night.)

Volcano Suns alone would be a tough act to follow. But with the Burma legacy (yes, I think at this point we can use that word) hanging over his head, it could give a musician a complex. Not Prescott. This is a guy who once sang, "How can I be senile when I feel so infantile," in his post-Suns band Kustomized, where he traded his drums for a guitar. He's not resting on his laurels. More like he stepped on his laurels on his way to band practice with a new project, which he is making sure maintains the same raucous feel as his other work, without attempting to replicate past glories.

Which brings up to this past Sunday night, August 5 when he came to Howlers with Minibeast. The name first popped on my radar as a solo recording project. "It's nothing like Volcano Suns," he told me in a Facebook comment once. True - it's a lot loopier, in terms of samples that appear in it and the wildness of the music. Two albums have been released under the name. They were no preparation for the evening. (The numerous live videos on youtube might help, though.)

In person, Prescott (who is on the right above, in the shadows) played guitar, though he spent as much time on keyboards, producing overdriven organ chords and sampling his voice and other random noises. Joining him were bassist Eric Baylies and drummer Keith Seidel who can hit a groove and keep it strong for infinity. The hypnotic repetition, coupled with Prescott's wild trimmings, recalls the finer moments of Can, although these guys seem like they have a better grasp on where the music is going. Afterwards, I mentioned to Prescott that the group never had a look of "should we keep going," or "what happens now." They just kept surging. He replied that if anyone felt that way, it was him.

Lately I've been feeling inhibitions about the whole idea of playing music. My band has come undone due to valid, other commitments by the players. Which leaves me wondering if it's still worth doing at an age when most people go to be long before the headliner comes on. Musically I do have something else in the works, but I still doubt myself sometimes.

Seeing Peter Prescott - who almost 10 years to the day older than me - up there, ripping it up, screaming like it's 1989 and pretty much displaying the same joie de vivre from that time, it gives me hope. There's plenty of reasons to keep doing it, especially if that feeling in your gut makes you feel like playing music is instinctual. (Sorry if I poured it on thick, Peter, but we Irish are like that.)

Insect Factory, the solo guitar project of Jeff Barsky, is on tour with Minibeast and played a gentle prelude to the trio. It felt like for the first 30 to 60 seconds, Barsky wasn't even getting much of anything audible from his instrument. As he continued, though, he developed a rich sound with a bank of pedals that created loops upon loops that built in dynamics and melody until it filled the room. Just as gradually as the sound built, it also retracted. Much like the focus of Minibeast, Barsky played with ideas in mind. This wasn't random pedal play.

The Pittsburgh alto sax/drums duo of Skeletonized opened the evening. Their duets featured some improvisation but they delivered it in the context of tunes. Drums were accentuated by triggers that added loud keyboard bass-style foundation to the music. It sometimes covered up the alto but as a whole these guys were a great start to the night. Solid stuff.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Pittsburgh Current and Me

I don't like being away from the blog for a couple weeks. My goal is always to increase the regularity of posts, which can hopefully keep motivate readers to come back on a regular basis. But over the past couple weeks, other things have been taking up time. In particular, I've become a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, a brand-spankin' new alternative media publication in town. And I'm dead chuffed to be a part of it.

Pittsburgh Current was started by Charlie Deitch, the one-time editor of Pittsburgh City Paper and Bethany Ruhe, the paper's former Marketing Director. Charlie and I go back to the days of InPittsburgh where I was Assistant Arts Editor and he was a news writer who wasn't afraid to tackle hot button stories. And he was a really good writer too.

Short version of the story is, he got fired from CP under murky circumstances. Ruhe left not long after it. The long version of that story can be found here. But within about two months, they started a fundraising campaign to launch a new paper, and lo and behold they do'd it. Enter Pittsburgh Current.

For now, the paper is coming out monthly but it will be weekly before the end of the year. New stories are showing up on their website regularly. In fact I've had a number of stories of my own on there and I almost started to lose track of them.

Here's a rundown: A feature on the Pittsburgh duo the Lopez, who just released a 7" single and have an album on the way later this year.

A story of the report released by the Pittsburgh Music Ecosystem Project, an issue which has stirred up a lot of debate in the local scene.

An interview with Nik Westman, who fronted Nik & Central Plains in town before moving to New York. He was scheduled to play last Friday, but his flight was cancelled and he didn't make it.

And just posted today....a story about a network of local jazz organizers who are organizing around town and presenting an event called Jazz Days of Summer. This one has national implications because this jazz task force was launched in part by the Jazz Forward Coalition. This one is supposed to be in the next print issue which should hit the street this week. Locals should look for that.

A number of other local writers are involved with Pittsburgh Current including theater critic Ted Hoover. From what I've heard, Dan Savage's Savage Love column is also going to start getting printed in it as well. And I'm really happy that Margaret Welsh, who used to be my music editor at CP is editing the music section too. (Meg Fair, who succeeded her, is also involved).

With a number of editors I've have, I always envision him or her being in the mold of the classic hard-boiled editor, who yells across the office to me, addressing me by my last name, crumpling up copy and throwing it in the waste basket if it doesn't make the cut and using lingo like "scoop" when talking about stories. None of my editors have ever been like that, but if anyone would ever come close, it's Charlie. Maybe someday we'll be working in an office together where I can get that type of respect from the Chief.

In the meantime, pick up the paper and read it. A new issue is out this week.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

CD Review: Henry Threadgill 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg - Dirt... and More Dirt, Double Up Plays Double Up Plus, Román Filiú- Quarteria

Henry Threadgill 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg
Dirt...And More Dirt

Henry Threadgill
Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus

Román Filiú

When Henry Threadgill premiered "Old Locks and Irregular Verbs" at the Winter Jazz Fest in 2014, what amazed me was how the piece seemed to be built out of the sparest of parts, yet each of the musicians knew exactly how to fill the space in the music, moving it forward with direction. They built something out of the barest essentials, like they were planting seeds that immediately yielded a healthy crop.

That is just one skill that Threadgill possesses, conjuring that kind of power out of a group. His music can be dense, spare and intense, maybe a little hard to wrap the ears around. But when listners leave their preconceptions at the door, the majesty of the music comes out. That's another one of composer/saxophonist's traits - getting listeners to listen in that way. With accolades like the 2016 Pulitzer Prize as evidence, many others see these qualities in his work too. In a time when compact discs are continually maligned as obsolete, Pi, which has released Threadgill's work since it began in 2001, takes their commitment to him one step further by releasing two different Threadgill albums at the same time.

Dirt...and More Dirt was inspired by an art installation that featured 250 cubic yards of earth in a 3600 foot space. The group 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg features that number of performers. The "or 15" might refer to Threadgill himself, present throughout on flute, but standing out only in the final track with some rugged alto playing. He and four of the players also make up his Zooid ensemble, which gets bumped up on this release with additional brass, drums and two pianos.

The ten tracks are divided into two sections. The first six make up the parts of "Dirt" with the remaining four listed as parts of "And More Dirt." No significant difference between the two comes to forefront. What's noticeable is the way each section ends abruptly. Sometimes the group seems to stop mid-thought, like they were halted. Other times, a quick conclusion occurs. Ironically, the drums at the end of "Dirt, Part VI" ease right into "And More Dirt, Part I." Without looking at the CD player, it's easy to mistake the break between tracks.

Shifts in tempo or volume also occur within the sections, making it hard to give specifics without dissecting the entire piece. The brass plays raucously in "Dirt Part VI,' with trumpets and trombones playing vastly different lines, then the scene changes to flutes and muted trombones. When the two percussionists are left alone, it sounds like wind-up toys are being cranked to provide forward momentum.

Even when the whole piece ends, it doesn't do so with a strong conclusion. Threadgill's impassioned alto presents long, tones with slight vibrato, and even a wail that brings in the ensemble. Things could have continued but the leader has declared this is it. And you have to trust him on this because it works.

The composer doesn't play on Double Up Plays Double Up, letting Román Filiú and Curtis Robert McDonald take care of all the alto and flute work. David Virelles and David Bryant are joined by a third pianist this time, Luis Perdomo. (Virelles also plays harmonium.) Craig Weinrib is the only drummer though, joined by his Zooid bandmates Christopher Hoffman (cello) and Jose Davila (tuba).

While the aforementioned Threadgill work was filled with sudden stops, this set features a lot of open space, like much of his Zooid work. Davila works as the guiding undercurrent in the nearly 23-minute "Game Is Up," holding it together as it shifts from a lot of piano to alto and cello blends, finally to a bright, but somewhat cautionary theme. Whether or not "Clear and Distinct from the Other A" and its follow-up "Clear and Distinct From the Other B" are meant to resemble each other, each begins with stark piano lines, with cello working with it to lift up the alto (in "A") and flute (in "B"). Virelles' harmonium contributions during "A" almost sound like a lost accordion, adding to the intrigue. The closing  track "Clear and Distinct" offers a showcase for Davila, growling and singing as he blows the instrument, hitting the bottom of the register.

Once again, Threadgill has created some masterworks that prove to be a challenge when it comes to describing. His bandmates have said they feel the elements of the blues in his work, which isn't hard to notice. But he also reinvents those characteristics each time, coming up with something that doesn't sound like anything that's preceded it. Better to trust the master and listen.

Alto saxophonist Román Filiú plays on both of the new Threadgill releases, as well as the 2016 release of Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. On his Quarteria disc, the lessons he has learned with Threadgill comes to bear on his own music. The album was inspired by growing up in the public housing of Santiago de Cuba, where families lived in close proximity to one another. That concept launches the album in "Fulcanelli" where Filiú's alto, Ralph Alessi's trumpet and Dayna Stephens' tenor play melodies parallel, creating individual voices that don't interfere with one another.

Virelles and Weinrib are part of this rhythm section, together with bassist Matt Brewer and percussionist Yusner Sanchez. While they create grooves underneath, the horns (with Maria Grand joining on two tracks) float over them, acknowledging them but never content with simply giving into the rhythms. Filiú and Stephens both play solos in "Fulcanelli" that seem reflective, halting at times as if they're expressing their feelings candidly with great effort.

"Grass" combines a thoughtfully free part by Weinrib with more long tones from the horns, inspired by composer Oliver Messiaen. Of the three danzas composed for the album, "Danza #1" begins with a stuttering line similar to "Harina Con Arena," a brooding piece that appears earlier on the album. But "Danza #1" leans heavily on Sanchez and Weinrib to set the mood. While they take on similar duties in "Harina," Alessi and Filiú both play with more aggression on that piece.

Like Threadgill, and like the housing cuarteria that inspired Filiú, the saxophonist has created an album overflowing with diverse voices, with different ones coming to the forefront with each new listen.

To read my review of Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up's Old Locks and Irregular Verbs CD, click here. 
To ready my review of Zooid's In for a Penny, In For a Pound, click here.
To read my review of Zooid's This Brings Us To, Volume II, click here.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

How Capitol and Cameo Records Left Their Impressions on Me

Before I could read, I had a record player. The first one that I used had two speeds - 45 and 78. The needle was more like the type you'd find on a victrola, and the speaker was in the plastic tone arm. With that kind of set up, it's no wonder the records I'm about to describe disappeared early on.

I had a handful of 45s that I used to play a lot. I could tell them apart by the label designs, the level of wear to them and maybe the shape of the words. My parents told me the names of a few. One of my faves ways "York's Sauna" by the Don Scalleta Trio. It was a funky piano trio song split over two sides. I preferred "Part Two" in part because Side One was riddled with skips, the type that gets stuck in the grooves. Side two also had a great drum break in it. I also had records by the obscure California psych band Kak, the British group the Tremeloes (even after I could read, I still had trouble with that name) and an Okeh single by Little Richard- the greatest version of "Lucille" backed with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On." I have been able to find all of these in recent times.

But there were two records that disappeared (i.e. probably wore out due to that needle) that I never recalled. Until recently. One was also on Capitol, whose swirl label I remembered thanks to "York's Sauna" and the Nat "King" Cole record I also played extensively. In my little mind, it sounded like a rock band, one where the singer sounded a little old and the sound of the piano in the introduction always made me check to make sure it was on the right speed. Don't ask why I thought this with that particular record player. I might have played it on the family stereo in the living room too.

A few weeks ago, I decided to Google the line I remembered from the song, along with "Capitol" in hopes that I might get somewhere. It turns out, the line was the title: "Now I'll Never Be the Same." And the mystery band was........... the Four Preps?

There have been many "Four" bands since the post-war years in popular music. The Preps were less like the Four Freshman or Four Lads and more in league with either Kingston Trio or more well-scrubbed folksingers of that '50s. One of their hits was "25 Miles (Santa Catalina)," which was a semi-regular song on the playlist of WJAS-AM before that station went under. They also did a song called "A Letter to the Beatles" of which the less that's said, the better.

But one of the members of the Preps was Ed Cobb, who went on to write songs for groups like the Chocolate Watch Band. "Now I'll Never Be the Same" sounds very Spector-esque in production, thanks to producer Dave Axelrod. And Cobb, assuming he's the one singing it, is kind of going for the rough and rugged troubadour delivery, not unlike Barry McGuire in the New Christy Minstrels' hit "Green Green." Yes, that's Mr. Eve of Destruction in that song, a few years before he took protest music to the Top 40.

I know all this stuff because thanks to modern technology, someone posted "Now I'll Never Be the Same" on youtube. It's one of those videos of a record playing, which is great because I get to hear it just the way I remember it from about 45 years ago. And in it, I found all tell-tale things that I do recall.

Then there's the B-side, more of a novelty number: "Our First American Dance." It begins in more in a folky vein, sung from the perspective of what I can only assume as supposed to be "proper" English people (they fake the accent) thinking that they'll see people doing traditional dances in the U.S., finding instead a bunch of teenagers doing their thing, which they namedrop in the chorus. My three-year-old brain thought that at one point, they sang, "With a mickey or two." I wasn't too far off since the line is "...and the Monkey too." The Frug was also on the list.

The biggest surprise to me is that there is no entry at all for this record on Discogs. I had hopes that maybe I could find a copy for a couple dollars. No such luck.

Motivated by that success, I decided to look for another record. This time, I had a few more things to go on. This record was on Cameo, whose label design would come back to me when I found another of their records at a flea market a few years later. The song was definitely called "La La La La La." Stevie Wonder covered it on one of his first albums. About 12 years ago I was at a Northern Soul record night and one of the DJs was playing it. He puffed up like a peacock when I asked who it was and he made sure to tell me it was really rare. The singer's name went in one ear and out the other because it wasn't on Cameo. And Mr. Rare Records had no idea if that version had ever been on Cameo.

Last week, I asked myself why I hadn't done this any sooner. Within about a minute I was grooving to Joey Roberts' Cameo 45 of "La La La La La" on youtube. Like "I'll Never Be the Same" it also had a piano riff in the intro that I remembered, which kicks in with the drums. In my mind, the title was the only set of lyrics to the song, but there are a few more simple lines, repeated over a 1-4-5 groove before it faded out (still in my mind 45 years later). It holds up pretty well.

The same can't be said for the B-side, "Raggedy Ann," which might actually be spelled "Raggeddy Ann" if Discogs can be believed. This one is a little more like a Frankie Avalon song, with spoken parts and a backing vocalists, singing "she's just a doll/ and old rag doll." And they are singing about the doll itself, not some girl that Roberts is pining for. There is one great line about her hair "looks like it's been hit by a fan," however. But overall it's doesn't have the kick of the A-side

A few people are selling copies of this record on Discogs. The cheapest comes in at $29, which is a little too much to bring a tactile feeling to my nostalgia fix. Moments like this make me wonder if I should start rooting through piles of 45s that I see at flea markets and record shows. Maybe someday.

In the meantime, this entry should show how important it can be to create a good logo for your record label. People will recognize it for years to come. Now maybe when I'm in the nursing home, yammering about "American Dance" and Capitol Records, people will understand. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

CD Review: Anthony Braxton: Quartet (Willisau) 1991 Studio

Anthony Braxton
Quartet (Willisau) 1991 Studio

How is a person to assess a new Anthony Braxton disc? Its merit be calculated in comparison to other albums in the vast Braxton discography. Perhaps it should be looked at in tandem with other sets that reveal a certain compositional approach that the multi-reedist was using at the time. Or perhaps, the personnel should be the starting point.

Quartet (Willisau) 1991 Studio, a reissue of material originally released sometime in the year after it was recorded, comes not too many months after Sextet (Parker) 1993, the 11-disc set of Charlie Parker compositions Braxton played with a never-to-convene-again group of forward-thinking players. Considering that the humongous collection might be enough Braxton to last the average listener the full year,  the above questions about criteria might be in order.

This two-CD seat features one of his most celebrated quartets, with bassist Mark Dresser, pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Gerry Hemingway. A few tracks feature Braxton working with "C-class prototypes," where each band has an individual track of repeating material that they follow. There are also a few pieces that include band members playing different compositions than the rest of the quartet (indicated by the composition number in parenthesis). When the whole group shifts into another piece, a plus sign indicates the new number.

A few compositions that feature the repeating lines, between improvised passages, can get a little unnerving. "Compositions 158 (+96) + 40L" and "Composition 159" both can sound more like they're built on repetitive saxophone lines rather than a tag followed by rapid improvisations. The latter especially features a recurring set of high notes on the alto that can be hard to take.

Of course there is so much going on in the music beside the leader's horn that it's often possible to latch onto something from the rest of the band. Additionally, Graham Lock's liner notes give detailed direction to the entire set. It might be hard to see the connection between
(the illustration that Braxton assigns to "Composition 160") and the music itself, but half the pleasure lies in making that connection. Besides, Dresser offers some vicious bowing in the solo.  Likewise,
("Composition 161") sounds more ominous than the image of three friends playing pool, though the composer says the trio is talking about "their feelings of pessimism" which is evoked by Dresser's arco work and Braxton's contrabass clarinet. Regardless of the imagery, it has a beautifully, haunting quality.

The set also revisits works from earlier albums. After some improvisation that sounds like a chamber group guided by Braxton's flute, they go into "23C" the cumulative song from his first Arista album, which takes the repetition in a deeper direction, adding more melody to the song with each run through. The quartet follows that with two more compositions before the piece concludes after a hearty 23 minutes. "40M," from his next Arista album (Five Pieces 1975) gives the entire quartet a lot of open space, from Hemingway's opening drum declaration to Crispell's explosive solo to Braxton's shrapnel-throwing alto. All of it is pulsed by Dresser's groove.

While it's all extremely heady work, this two-disc package comes off as a very inviting set of music that should appeal to both longtime Braxton fans and newcomers.

Monday, July 02, 2018

CD Review: Sharel Cassity & Elektra - Evolve

Sharel Cassity & Elektra
(Relsha Music)

Saxophonist Sharel Cassity's roots run deep. This was apparent on Relentless, her sophomore release in 2015. Along with a set of straight ahead originals, the alto saxophonist took on Charles Tolliver's low-down "On the Nile." There is a good chance she picked up the tune via Jackie McLean's Jacknife session, which features Tolliver's trumpet and composition. Of course, it's likely that she heard the composer's own version of it on his session for Arista-Freedom.

Regardless, it showed that Cassity was, as the title said, relentless when it comes to soaking up the history of her horn (she also plays soprano saxophone and flute). She had been playing saxophone since she was still in the single-digits and has amassed quite a catalog of appearances, from the ambitious Fat Cat Big Band to Natalie Merchant. In some ways, it's ironic that a well-seasoned player is still on the "Rising Star" list of alto saxophonists in downbeat, but Cassity has made it again this month. (What ever happened to "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition," which at least acknowledged that the deserving players might have been at it longer?)

All this brings us to Evolve, her fourth album as a leader, which came out a few months ago. While at least one Elektra performance featured an all-female lineup, the album includes guitarist Mark Whitfield, drummer Jonathan Barber and - on one track - Freddie Hendrix adding flugelhorn rather than his usual trumpet. But Linda Oh handles bass duties throughout, and Ingrid Jensen plays trumpet and Lucianna Padmore plays drums, respectively on two tracks.

Cassity continues to play like an ambitious soloist and composer on the title track. The electric 7/4 groove has a slipper quality, which she and Jensen bring it to life. The electronics on her alto in the second chorus expand the sound to her lines. At the far end of the album Cassity pushes herself into some wails during "Outlier," closing the set triumphantly.

In between, things are little different. The cover credits don't indicate it, but the second and third songs come from Alicia Keys and Bjork, respectively. Keys' "New Day" features some tight trades between Cassity and trumpeter Marcus Printup. Barber adds some explosive fills that could get a crowd moving, though he would've benefited from more bottom end from the production. But vocalist Christie Dashiell's subdued vocals substitute the intensity of the original for a more a laidback mood that doesn't feel as convincing. Bjork's "All Is Full of Love," with Cassity switching to soprano, becomes more of a smooth jazz number.

"The Have, the Now" really harkens back to the days of CTI Records. Whitfield's slick wah-wah effect and a brief interlude from keyboardist Miki Hayama both evoke the moist sounds of pop fusion of the '70s. "Be the Change" gives Cassity a chance to again show her alto chops, maneuvering gracefully through some time signature turns. But the power is almost lost after a spoken intro of generic New Age-y aphorisms (luckily they're banded in their own track). Sure, we need positive ideas these days, but the fact that we're already listening means we're already on her side. The liner notes, which incorporate all the song titles into the message, also comes off a little cloying.

Since Evolve is a self-release, it's safe to consider the album is built on Cassity's vision and not the result of pressure to assuage a label exec hoping for more airplay (scant as that may be in 2018) or attention from a non-jazz audience. No one can fault her for wanting to move into new territory either, incorporating more stylistic ideas she's picked up along the way, as she did with "On the Nile." Hopefully she can find a balance between the elements that go down easy and the execution that keeps the bite in the music.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

What Happened in June? (Answer: Jaimie Branch, Magnetic Fields, Marc Ducret/Samuel Blaser, Thoth, records, travels)

Damn, last month I was on a roll, churning out a total of seven posts. That's probably not much for your die-hard bloggers, but for me it was significant. (I tend to overthink things and take too long to write them.)

Now, here's June and all I have to show for it is one measly post from the first day of the month. I was on vacation too, so one might think there was time to write more. In that regard, I did spend a lot of time on a story for City Paper about the Pittsburgh Music Ecosystem Project, which ran in last week's issue. I thought it might get some attention and comments since the whole project started some fires on social media. But that didn't happen. Of course, Pittsburgh was reeling from the shooting of Antwon Rose last week, and the general malaise that came with the whole detainee issue.

In an effort to get back on track, here are some photos and highlights of things that have gone on over the past month, which I was able to check out:

As my last post mentioned, Jaimie Branch came to town with Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello) and Stoli L. Sozzleberg (drums) on June 1. The group was improvising loosely but it held together really well, going from completely lose, sprawling sounds to melodies that almost sounded like ballads. All through it, Branch was great, straddling smears and noises with bold exclamations and even breaking into melodies that sounded like composed ballads. Sozzleberg seems to show just a little too much restraint at times, but Lonberg-Holm played a great blend of complex lines and unnerving scrapes and squeals.

The week of June 11, my son and I flew out to Denver to visit my brother and his family. He's lived out there for about 30 years now and this is the first time I ever went out there. Crazy, for sure, but I'm not much of a traveler. Among the sites we saw, we made it to Red Rocks, though we unfortunately couldn't go onto the stage because they were setting up for a concert. But we did get a good look at the space and all its surrounding beauty. I'll tell you what, pictures don't do it justice. But I'll try anyway.

While in Denver, I did get a chance to stop at both Wax Trax and Twist & Shout, two record stores. The latter was huge, with a lot of new stuff and a lot of movie/pop culture stuff for sale along with the records. But Wax Trax was more of a hardwood floor place, with stacks of used records at the end of aisles and maybe a little dirt on the floor.

The West Coast jazz bug was still biting hard on me, as I was in the midst of Ted Gioia's book on that very subject. I was hoping to find Bud Shank's New Groove album at a price cheaper than what I saw online. By finding that I will have almost all of his '50s/early '60s Pacific Jazz stuff. That was not to be but I did pick up: French horn man John Graas' self-titled album on Mercury: the Gerry Mulligan Songbook on Pacific Jazz, largely on the strength of having both guitarist Freddie Green side-by-side with bassist Henry Grimes; and pianist Claude Williamson's Keys West album on Capitol, part of the "Stan Kenton Presents" series.

Twist and Shout's selection seemed a little more expensive, so when I saw a copy of Chico Hamilton Quintet In Hi-Fi for $11, I thought for sure it must be trashed. But I was wrong. The cover had clear tape on the seams and it was a little bit scratchy but still really nice. Gioia was kind of dismissive of the group in his book, so I thought I should check this out and reexamine them. (I have a few of the other albums and only one of the later World Pacific ones seemed a little light.) Listening to In Hi-Fi I can understand what he means, but as long as Buddy Collette is playing saxophone, things are on pretty solid ground.

Getting back from Denver last on Saturday, June 16, and working the next day, I totally missed getting to any of the Pittsburgh Jazz International Festival, or to see the return of bassist Matt Booth to City of Asylum. Last week, though I was back at Alphabet City to see guitarist Marc Ducret, with trombonist Samuel Blaser.

Ducret played in a few projects with Tim Berne in the '90s, most notably Bloodcount, though he also took part in a band/album called Caos Totale. He has the kind of dry, skronk style that makes me think of Marc Ribot, but he also uses the volume pedal shifts, a la Bill Frisell. Put that all together, you get something altogether different. In person, Ducret was pulling all those otherwordly sounds out of his instrument like it was nothing. Blaser was a great partner with him, blowing all over the music with and without a series of mutes. He toyed with low, gruff noises but tempered that with some beautiful lines as well.

While Ducret & Blaser were playing at Alphabet City, Magnetic Fields were playing the first to two nights at the Carnegie Music Hall. It was part of a tour that finds them playing everything from the 50 Song Memoir album in succession, over two nights. (To read my recent conversation with MF kingpin Stephin Merritt, click here.) 

While I wanted to see both shows on Tuesday, I'd never seen Marc Ducret in person before so I figured I could catch Program B of Magnetic Fields and feel like I had my cake and ate it too. 

The picture above shows the stage. Actually, that's only part of it. This is where Merritt sat, with all the members of the band behind the glass, due to hearing issues that he has. The set is designed to recreate his apartment, replete with vintage lunchboxes and the stuffed animal that appears on the cover of Love at the Bottom of the Sea.

The start of the second night was great, kicking off with "The Day I Finally..." The song features Merritt accompanying himself on nothing more than a bunch of percussion. On the album, it sounds like he's wandering around, picking stuff and hitting it randomly. Last week, he brandished what looked like a banjo, with cowbells, a woodblock and a cymbal mounted on it., with everything ready for use.

Film projections - which appeared above the band in the vintage circle that says "50 Song Memoir" in the photo - ran the gamut from black and white films about germs ("Weird Diseases") to an actual beating heart ("A Serious Mistake") to candy hearts that poignantly aided the story unraveling in "Lovers Lies." Eventually, it was clear that the attention should focus primarily on Merritt and his Wonderland and not the screen. 

After the show, I got to say hello to Merritt, who had encouraged me to "come backstage" as we were wrapping up our interview. He has a reputation for not being friendly but he's always been charming with me. Maybe he's a little blunt but that's only because he doesn't go for either inane questions or fawning. This was driven home by Merritt's exchange between a 20-something fan who was introduced at the same time I was. 

Stephin: I think I'm getting a cold. You should stand over so you won't get sick.

Fan: Stephin, I would love if you sneezed on me.

Stephin. (pause, but not the typical Merritt lagtime pause): I don't think that's a good idea. 

Last night, it was back to Alphabet City to hear the Thoth Trio. Locals know all about this trio of Ben Opie (saxophones), Paul Thompson (bass) and David Throckmorton (drums), but I wish folks beyond the city did too. I was just reading the story in the upcoming issue of JazzTimes where people sung the praises of Johnny Costa, the amazing pianist on Misterrogers Neighborhood. Hopefully Thoth will get some national loving soon, not years after the fact like Costa. Last night they played a bunch of new material too, which sounded really solid. Ben was having trouble with his tenor sax and played mostly alto. I like that more, of course, but you wouldn't have known the tenor issue was all that serious. He seemed to be doing okay with it. 

In conclusion to whole month, I found a copy of New Groove Discogs last week. It was affordable and even in better shape that the description stated. The same day it arrived, I also finished Gioia's book.

Just one more thing...

My hang-up of the month: I checked out the Carnegie Library's copy of Music Written for Monterey 1965, not heard...played in its entirety at UCLA by Charles Mingus a few weeks ago. Now I can't find the goddam booklet that goes with it. I thought for a moment that maybe it was never there, but then I recalled reading the liner notes. I'm afraid it's gone and that I'll have to pay for the CD. But if I somehow left it with you, dear reader, let me know. 

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.