Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Guitars of All Sorts Invade Pittsburgh

Lately, the writing assignments for Pittsburgh Current have been coming at such a rate, it almost feels like an actual full-time job. That's not a complaint in the least, but with the real job too, that doesn't leave much focus for things like blog entries. Then when I do have the time, I spent most of wondering if there's something else I should be doing. 

I turned 51 last weekend (October 7, for anyone who's keeping track) and while I didn't get the full day off from work, at least I didn't have to work the closing shift. After dinner with Mum and the family, I made it to Brillobox to catch the Major Stars, as well as local openers Terry & the Cops. (Dinner precluded getting to see the other opener, Ancient Skvlls [not a typo]). Major Stars are led by guitarists Wayne Rogers and Kate Village. For more background on the band, click here to see my preview on the show. 

Most bands have their personalities shaped by their singer. Not necessarily the case with Major Stars. Originally Rogers handled the vocals. But once he decided to devote all his attention to his guitar, three women have filled the slot, each bringing a dynamic set of pipes to the band. Noell Dorsey has been the vocalist for a couple years now and she has a voice that can hold its own when combined with the three-guitar onslaught of Rogers, Village and Tom Leonard. When the guitar solos were going - which was a major chunk of the set - she spent a good deal of time doing some impressionistic dancing/swaying to the music or, towards the end of the set, banging on a tambourine. She didn't seem to mind playing second fiddle to the guitars.

Some people might run screaming at the idea of three guitars, beaucoup solos and excessive volume. On paper it may seem like a dude thing, in the worst way possible. But Major Stars poked holes in that idea. For obvious starters, there's Village, who came off as the most physical player of the three. Armed with a hollowbody guitar, she ravaged it during the set, leaping offstage (almost colliding into several audience members) and working the feedback through it, with amazing and taste. Rogers also jumped towards us several times, in addition to stalking around the stage like a man with a mission. But he played with a sense of lifting the bandstand, not merely showing off. Leonard, who stayed back comparatively, had the tough task of maintaining himself between these two, and complementing Rogers' lines at times. He pulled that off in spades too. As far as volume, well, you can't have three guitars up there and expect to be polite and quiet.

Guitar music of a very different type was happening at Club Cafe this past Saturday. Bill MacKay grew up in Pittsburgh but moved away and calls Chicago his home. A couple years ago I wrote about an album he released with his band Darts and Arrows. More info about his recent work can be found here, in a piece I did for Pittsburgh Current

MacKay took the stage at a show that could have used at least a couple dozen more people. It was just him and an Epiphone, plus a few pedals and a glass slide. Something really peaceful and spellbinding happens when people play music this pure and honest. It's rich in melody, and filled with technique, which probably adds to the quality of it. But MacKay made it look easy to squeeze these harmonic fragments together with a little bit of fret noodling and a lot of focus. The show was so uplifting that the next morning, I took to social media in hopes of getting some friends out to see him play a free show at the Carnegie Library in Oakland. I'm not sure if anyone took me up on the idea of the 2 p.m. show, but one good friend bought some music online based on my tip, so I was glad to hear that.

I got there towards the end of a set by the local duo Pairdown, but liked what I heard. Most compelling was "70s Bert," a song inspired by guitarist Bert Jansch and another story about mystery and intrigue (I think), which they delivered with some gorgeous picking that was a direct link to Bert.

On the previous night, I was back at Brillobox for the album release by locals Mariage Blanc. (Read all about them here. See, I told you PC has become like a part-time job, rather than just freelance stuff here and there.) I realize I throw the word "dreamy" around quite a bit when talking about pop music, but the way guitarists Matt Ceraso and Josh Kretzmer play together, picking out complementing melodies, did sound pretty dreamy. Having listened intensively to Mirror Phrase, their new album, it was exciting to hear the music coming to life onstage. Not that the album lacks any humanity. But it is produced to sound like a complete work, whereas on Friday, I was watching four guys playing that music.

The only frustrating thing was the large contingent of people talking at loud volumes during the set. Unlike Major Stars, Mariage Blanc's music doesn't mow you down so much as pull you in. If you want to talk, people, go downstairs to that bar. You're not doing the band any favors. And you're missing out.

Mariage Blanc took what I like to call "the coveted second slot," between openers Andre Costello and the Cool Minors and headliners delicious pastries. I got there late (it was my first night not closing in several days, so I had family time) and I only caught the tail end of Costello's set. By the time delicious pastries went on, I was beat, bur I couldn't leave. These guys hardly ever play out and when they do, they make it Happening, combining the best of vintage psychedelic pop of the past and of the newer strain that comes from bands like Olivia Tremor Control. I caught myself nodding off while standing on my feet, and I still couldn't leave until they were done.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

CD Review: Geof Bradfield- Yes, and... Music for Nine Improvisers

Geof Bradfield
Yes, and... Music for Nine Improvisers
(Delmark) www.delmark.com

Considering this album comes from Delmark, which for decades has championed generations of free improvisers in Chicago, the title of Geof Bradfield's debut on the label gave the impression that this was going to be a session that might get pretty rowdy. Nine improvisers together can create a good ruckus. The opening "Prelude,"where Bradfield's tenor blows over a jerky vamp provided by bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Dana Hall, didn't dispel the preconception either. Things never boil over but Bradfield takes some great intervallic leaps and the rhythm section gradually gets freer.

But the ensemble passages in "In Flux," which immediately follows "Prelude," take a different turn. They feature an airy, colorful blend of flute, bass clarinet, trumpets and trombone. Scott Hesse's guitar solos might toy with bar lines, but there isn't a trace of skronk to what he does. Then, if things seem to light, alto saxophonist Greg Ward changes all that in his all-too-brief solo, before one of the trumpets brings it back down. Something else is afoot here.

The Yes, and... part of the title is derived from an improvisational game used by the Compass Players. This theater group that originated in 1950s Chicago and has connections to comedy legend Shelley Berman (a personal hero), Second City (a successor) and Sun Ra (who was hired once to improvise behind the actors). In the "Yes...and" game, an actor would improvise a bit and the actor that followed them would use this phrase as a springboard to what they would then say, much like improvisation.

Bradfield used this concept for the whole album, which he wrote as a suite. "Prelude" and other short tracks like "Chorale" and "Ostinato" serve as quick breakout pieces for trios of the group. The remaining pieces present the whole group working together. The 14-minute "Anamneses" is the most successful of the longer ones. The ensemble moves in and out, sounding like they're agreeing with the soloists' thoughts. Hall's recurring woodblock hits act like a bonding agent to the setting. Anna Webber's bass flute gives the first section some rich color, followed by bigger dynamics and squawks from Russ Johnson's trumpet. Bradfield wraps it up with solo marked by some gruff vibrato.

Games of "Yes...and" probably went in directions that the players never expected. It was built on that sense of the unknown. In that same way, this album has a bit of a random quality that can be both engaging and disjointed. "Impossible Charms" leans closer to modern big band swing, with solos from trombonist Joel Adams and trumpeter Marquis Hill. The album concludes with "Forro Hermeto," a salute to the festive music of Hermeto Pascoal. It's a worthy ending, especially in the final minutes where the rhythm shifts into a highly-charged dance party. But on the basic listening level, it almost seems out of place considering all that has preceded it.

At this point, jazz music is open to all manner of composition approaches. Geof Bradfield has drawn on one from another artform that lends itself to the music. Although the results might be a bit far flung this time around, there are plenty of moments where the soloists and the ensemble passages bring it to life.

Monday, October 01, 2018

John Vanderslice Returned to Pittsburgh!

As a scrawny kid growing up in the part of Squirrel Hill, a Pittsburgh neighborhood, that bordered the Greenfield neighborhood, there were certain things you watched out for. Well, one thing in particular. If you made eye contact with certain types of dudes from Greenfield, you were likely to get a chest pumped in your face and accusations of "being bad." All because of eye contact. I was once accused of trying to be bad by a tough dude who stole a hat I was wearing. The threat came because I had the audacity to try and grab it back from him. And that didn't even happened on the streets of Greenfield. It was right before a CCD class at church.

But that was long ago. Greenfield is a different place now. Not only are those kinds of threats (hopefully) gone, but now there's a chance that a house on Greenfield Avenue might host one of your favorite singers when he plays an intimate set for about 35 people. That's just what happened this past Wednesday, when John Vanderslice set up shop for an evening.

I have to admit I had some apprehensions about the set-up. Vanderslice's songs of conspiracy theorists, dark threats, strange love and generally unwound narrators seem to draw people who really like his music a lot. (I fall into that category but my obsession has been in remission as of late.) These Vanderslice fans could be the type of people that consider an intimate living room concert the place where they can have one-on-one conversations with him between songs. These kinds of things happen at indie rock shows, so why not here.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. The night was nothing like that. Clark, the host of the evening, was a gracious, enthusiastic host, as was his wife, whose name escapes me. (Sorry.) Their daughter Ada had a concession stand on the front porch, which several visitors patronized too.

And then there was John. He was in the midst of a living room tour because in 2014 he decided he was through with playing rock clubs. His song "Dear Sarah Shu," he said, is a metaphorical announcement that he was over with touring and was leaving an elaborate set of warnings for future acts that want to engage in this foolish task. (We'll overlook for a minute that the song came out in 2005 on Pixel Revolt.)

The Living Room Tour solved every problem Vanderslice had with the typical tour grind that can drive indie rock performers crazy. The audience, in exchange, got to get up close and personal with him for a more time than one normally gets at a club show too. For two solid hours, he played 20 songs and told us stories between them. He even opened with "The Dream is Over," a song by his old band MK Ultra, which Clark requested.

At first the stories between songs went on as long as the actual songs, with Vanderslice's sharp wit and warmth making them worthwhile. Anyone who thinks that his lyrics are all a reflection of himself as an anxious, paranoid theorist would be relieved to discover how together he actually is. "I'm crazy, but a good crazy," he said. The guitarist continually asked if everyone was comfortable, or if they needed to get a drink. He also plugged Ada's concession stand as well. He even invited questions, which were politely asked about some of the lyrics.

After a few songs, John seemed really comfortable with the scene and didn't always stop to talk after every song. "My song-to-story ratio is high," he later said, and he was right. He struck a good balance between songs and talk. So when he needed help remembering the lyrics to "Fiend in a Cloud," it didn't upset the flow of the evening. "Exodus Damage," with lyrics that read like a letter from a co-dependent narrator to either a lover or role model, became even more suspenseful when Vanderslice stopped strumming the guitar and sang most of it a capella. It was even more impressive since he started the song lightheartedly by trying to get Clark's wife (who requested it) to sing it along with him.

Vanderslice sang so many songs that night, with vivid tales populated by all sorts of characters, that I felt like I needed to go home and listen to all of his albums, and all the MK Ultra albums, again and remember all the words and song titles. The whole performance got me that excited about it.

Afterwards, he urged everyone to hang around for a dance party. "Well, if you have to go, that's okay," he assured us. The party never really took off but after working the merch tables and bestowing genuine thanks to everyone who came, he expounded to us hangers-on about the creativity and production in modern hip hop music, cranking up his Spotify playlist to offer examples. He laid out a whole elaborate set of reasons, but that's better suited for another blog post some other time.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

CD Review: Steve Coleman & Five Elements- Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets)

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets)
(Pi Recordings) www.pirecordings.com

A few weeks ago, Kevin Whitehead reviewed this double-CD live Steve Coleman set on an installment of the NPR show Fresh Air. It served as a nice place to potentially lure some listeners who might dig Coleman's music. (Whitehead also reviewed the Daniel Carter/William Parker/Matthew Shipp CD Seraphic Light a few weeks prior to that, which was a major coup for their unique work.) I broke my cardinal rule of avoiding contact with a critique of something that I planned to review, and I listened to the whole piece.

I'm glad I did because by listening to the track excerpts played between Whitehead's comments, the music took on a unique characteristic: It sounded like bebop. Not modern day, retrogressive bop, but first generation bebop - like the kind Charlie Parker did on Dial. And not because Coleman is playing anything like "Scrapple from the Apple" or "Relaxing at Camarillo." (Maybe the fact that he plays alto has something to do with my perception, which came around 11:00 pm, driving home from work.) The similarity came in the way this quintet delivered the music. There was fire in it, and a strong dose of self-assurance, even as they were making their way through all manner of rhythmic shifts, sometimes in direct contrast with one another. Calling Coleman's music rhythmically complex is putting it mildly. But hearing those bits again (I had been listening to the CD at home already), it played up how his melodies are accessible and engaging if one takes the time to really check them out.

A fair number of more adventurous jazz musicians have been performing at the Village Vanguard recently, but Coleman and the fabled nightclub go way back. Five Elements has had annual engagements there since 2015. Even before that occurred, Coleman became well acquainted with the Vanguard as a member of the Mel Lewis Orchestra from 1978 to 1980. The band, which initially featured Thad Jones' name in the marquee with Lewis, played there every Monday night, and it continues as the Vanguard Orchestra. Coleman moved to New York at age 21 in part to join that band.

The two sets contain virtually the same compositions but set order and combinations of tracks in medleys guarantee that they never seem like a rehash. Of course, Coleman's writing being what it is, there is never any fear of overlap anyway. "Horda," which opens disc one and first appeared on his Morphogenesis album, is built on cyclical riffs where the repeat comes in odd, unexpected places. When trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson joins the saxophonist line, he sounds right at home playing a counterline. While the whole group has an amazing rapport, Sean Rickman's skill at adding choice accents amidst his tempo work is particularly jaw-dropping. Towards the end of "Horda," both horns reach a climax by hitting just one note over a complex rhythm, while the rest of the band swirls around them. In the version on disc two, guitarist Miles Okazaki takes a solo that feels as restrained as the drums and horns sound wild.

A series of new compositions were created in a process that Coleman explains as "chains of tonal dyads that are strung together to create certain embedded melodic structures." He titled them using words from the ancient Egyptian writing system usually known as hieroglyphics. Some of the melodies have a bit of a folk-like quality, while a track like "Djw" has a visceral feel more like a progressive rock tune, thanks in part to the driving rhythm section of Okazaki, Rickman and bassist Anthony Tidd.

In case anyone might think Coleman's music is too serious, both sets end with stage announcements from the bandleader, who throws a different bon mot in each one as he introduces the band (making doubly sure he doesn't miss anyone). The liner to the cover also features a candid group photo which catches Coleman mid-laugh. Hopefully some Fresh Air listeners took the initiative to find this album since it features some of the most provocative music to come out this year. And the Vol. 1 in the title indicates there's more to come!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

LP Review: Matthew Lux's Communication Arts Quartet

Matthew Lux's Communication Arts Quartet
(Astral Spirits/Mofonus) monofonuspress.com/store/matthew-luxs-communication-arts-quartet-2

Contra/Fact originally came out on cassette last fall. This edition commits bassist Matthew Lux's debut as a leader to vinyl, trimming a couple tracks from the original album and changing the running order a bit. Lux has been described as the Kevin Bacon of Chicago, due to his close connection to the Windy City's various music scenes. He could easily play straight or free jazz but his name has appeared on numerous albums by Isotope 217, various Rob Mazurek projects and albums by indie-related artists like Azita, Smog and Iron & Wine. If anything has kept him from leading his own session, it probably relates to a busy calendar.

Lux doesn't attempt to make for lost time by putting his instrument front and center on Contra/Fact. In fact, he acts more like a designer, creating scenes for his quartet comrades to flesh out, which he embellishes with effects and editing techniques later. Joining him are Ben Lamar Gay (cornet), Mikel Patrick Avery (drums) and Jayve Montgomery (tenor sax, "clarinumpet," flute). All four of them also add percussion, along with samplers and brief bits of guitars to the mix.

The new running order ensures that Contra/Fact never stays in one place for too long, easing from a rhythmic groove to a sample-heavy bit of electro-acoustic noise to a blend of dub and solid horn solos. If the group created everything spontaneously in the studio, they were clearly having a ball by taking raw ideas and seeing where they would lead. However, moments like the harmonized horn line toward the end of "Israels'" indicate that some preparation went into it. The tight groove that Avery and Lux sustain during this track makes it one of the standouts. Earlier in the album, Lux evokes the warmth of Charlie Haden in the rubato "Ninna Nanna," accompanied with Mongomery's smoky tenor and Gay's muted cornet, before everyone starts to move freely and the entire quartet gets bathed in distortion.

If the noisier tracks don't hold up quite as well as the rest, they continue to change shape as they proceed. The sounds early in "Mercury Lights" evoke both turntable scratching and car radio transmissions that fade in and out, before buzzing samples overtake it. At 10 minutes, the choppy "C.G.L.W." gets a little long, but it wants to go back to Miles Davis' On the Corner, pondering what remains on that corner all these years later.

Considering Matthew Lux's extensive list of credits, it should probably come as no surprise that his own outing would cross several sorts of musical terrain. In this case, the lack of a definite focus works in his favor.

Friday, September 14, 2018

CD Reviews on Intakt: Angelika Niescier, Joey Baron/Robyn Schulkowsky, Vandermark/Wooley/Courvoisier/Rainey

Keeping up with Intakt Records feels like an insurmountable effort. While U.S. labels wring their hands and wonder how to sustain themselves, this Swiss label continues to release, on average, two new albums a month. Whereas many labels and promoters have resorted to sending promotion downloads to writers, Intakt, bless their hearts, continues to mail out hard copies of each release across the ocean. 

The quality of the music is fairly consistent as well. Even with an album that doesn't really move me, I come away at least come away with an appreciation for what the performer was going for, which is a pretty good standard to maintain as well. As far as getting a chance to dig deep into the music and come up with ways to talk about it in depth, therein lies the challenge. It is one of many.

With that in mind, I've pulled out a few albums that they've released either this month or sometime within the past six months and decided to focus on them.

Angelika Niescier
The Berlin Concert

My laptop disc drive listed The Berlin Concert as an EP, an ironic assessment since the four tracks come out to about 40 minutes, the standard length for a vinyl album. But these days, that can be considered short for a jazz album.

Alto saxophonist Niescier was born in Poland but has spent much of her life in Germany, with trips to the US, where she started a trio with Christopher Tordini (bass) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums). She also performed in areas with heavy political tension like the Gaza Strip and Egypt. For reasons like that, she received the Albert Mangelsdorff Prize (German Jazz Award) at the time that this November 2017 performance occurred, during Jazzfest Berlin

The communication level between the trio members clearly runs deep. Tordini works as an anchor during "Kundry." Niescier produces fast torrents of notes but she still ends her phrases with a great deal of clarity. While that goes on, Sorey sounds like he's playing countermelodies on his snare. After holding things together, Tordini gets a chance for an unaccompanied solo.

After the bowed bass and alto duet "Like Sheep, Looking Up" (the title a variation on a John Brunner novel about environmental destruction), Niescier almost sounds Monk-like in "The Surge" because of the way she wraps around variations of the melody, except she's moving five times faster than usual. The freest track of the four, its musical ideas come fast and furiously. It confirms a quote from Niescier that opens the liner notes: "All three of us were at peak levels of communication and awareness, and in a state of maximum openness toward the music."

Joey Baron & Robyn Schulkowsky
Now You Hear Me

Solo instrument albums require some extra commitment from listeners. An album by two drummers/percussionist goes even further. Of course when the prolific Joey Baron (to narrow his c.v. to two names, all you need to know is John Zorn and Carmen McRae) teams up with Robyn Schulkowsky (who has worked with Cage, Xenakis and Feldman to drop just a few avant-garde composers), the program is not going to consist of mere grooves played ad nauseum.

The dynamic level on Now You Hear Me doesn't vary too much. But even when a track totals 32 minutes, these two get into some deep sound conversations. Both are credited with only drums and percussion, so it's possible that electronics don't factor into the music. But there are moments during "Passage" when a static noise blends perfectly with the closed snare and toms, sounding like sampling is occurring. Cymbal rolls imitate the surge of a tide or, later in "The Gaze," they approximate feedback. The tuned percussion in the latter track sounds like Harry Partch instruments which, repetitive as they are, create a trance feel.

Now Your Hear Me might not be something that's pulled off the shelf often, but Baron and Schulkowsky take some enthralling risks - such as playing on either metal pipes or bells before one of them eases over to the trap kit. With music this spare, it's best to realize how each tap on a drum has a greater significance.

Noise of Our Time

The quartet on Noise of Our Time consists of musicians all coming together for the first time although several of them had worked together in different capacities. Ken Vandermark and Nate Wooley have performed extensively as a duo and in the group Shelter. Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier is part of Wooley's Battle Pieces group and has improvised with drummer Tom Rainey.

Wooley, Vandermark and Courvoisier each composed three tracks for this album. Each player creates settings that allow their bandmates to reveal their full personality, to the extent that it's often surprising who wrote the tune, considering who leaves the biggest impression. The level of communication between the horns in Courvoisier's "Sparks" is jaw-dropping, as they volley honks and tweets back and forth between each other. The actual composition approximates a Monk theme that has smashed to pieces on the floor, with some remnants still held together by threads.

Wooley likes to use pregnant pauses for suspense, which can be heard in both "Truth Through Mass Indivduation" and the tone poem "The Space Between the Teeth." The trumpeter gives off some vicious noise in "VWCR" with some vocal grunts underneath that almost sound violent.

After the frenzy that comes with much of the album, it ends on a reflective note with Vandermark's "Simple Cut." This one has the melancholia of a memorial song with a rich texture that also sounds a bit foreboding. It makes an interesting contrast to what preceded it - a unit that is clearly working well together and will hopefully return to the studio again.

More info on these albums at the whole Intakt catalog can be found at www.intaktrec.ch.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Remembering Pitch-A-Tent Records - Ten Foot Faces, Spot 1019, Wrestling Worms

This has been the year for me to reconnect with music from my past. At the start of the year, I fell into a Charlie Parker kick, which included getting my beloved Complete Savoy & Dial set stolen out of my car, along with a smashed window in sub-freezing weather. (I found another copy shortly thereafter, at a reasonable price.) Then I got the Parker Dean Benedetti Mosaic box out of the library. Then, with Mosaic on my mind, I set out to find copies of all of the Bud Shank albums that were reissued the box Mosaic devoted to the saxophonist.

At some point during all of that, I pulled out the compilation At Dianne's Place, which I received in 1988 when I was doing the zine Discourse. The compilation featured bands that had played in a club in Santa Cruz. Despite the fact that Dianne's Place existed for a mere six months in 1986, it hosted bands that you might have know (Camper Van Beethoven, Vomit Launch) and others that you should have known (keep reading). At the time it probably felt like a place where people were doing what they had to do to get their music out there. In retrospect - which I'll admit is filtered through a wistful set of glasses - it was probably pretty magical.

A few crazy connections floated to the surface as I listened to the record and waxed nostalgically. For one thing, it was exactly 30 years ago that I first heard it, a few months before I (finally) turned 21. Also, four bands on the album would eventually put out albums on CVB's Pitch-A-Tent label., all in 1988.  One was the Donner Party, which included future Quasi member Sam Coomes. (At the time I was wearing out their debut album, also self-titled, on Cryptovision, which helped me make it through a trying summer of heat, irresponsible roommates and mice.) I'd eventually pick up the second Donner Party album but I never got around to the other three bands - Ten Foot Faces, Spot 1019 and Wrestling Worms. 

For a few months this year I hit all the local record stores in hopes of finding them. I can recall seeing them around fairly frequently back in the day. Now, no luck. The two record stores I visited in Denver didn't have them either. At this point, they fall into the category of :not as easy to come by, but not really "rare" in the big dollar sense." For months I had been eyeing up copies on Discogs wondering which one and which seller would offer the best deal. I finally took the plunge and have this report on them.

Ten Foot Faces
Daze of Corndogs and Yo-Yos

Of all three groups, these guys probably should've gone somewhere. Maybe they did. Maybe they're still at it. Maybe there is another half dozen beret-wearing bloggers talking about how great this slab of melodic garage punk is too. "You're Blowin' My High" was also on At Dianne's Place, a song with one of the greatest transitions from the bridge to the final verse. But even before that, they open the album with Henry Mancini's "The Party" and "Run for Tin" in which singer Rod Barker can barely spew out the words about his set of wheels, but still does.

This album recalls an era when bands could be funny or clever without hitting you over the head with it. "Back to Bedrock" begins with a Hanna-Barbera sound effect, but the novelty ends there. It just becomes a great song. "I'm In Your Mind" moves beyond their edgy semi-snotty sound and plays up the band's ability to do an overdriven Byrds sound too. A song like this could fit in nicely on Little Steven's Underground Garage show. If any more evidence of their power was needed, they close the album with a cover of MC5's "Rocked Reducer No. 65 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)." Barker's illustrations throughout the lyric sheet and record label remind me of the zany quality in the work of Gideon Kendall, late of Fake Brain.

Spot 1019
This Word Owes Me a Buzz

The title of this album was a recurring phrase that some friends and I would use whenever we were feeling frustration with anything in the world. Ironic considering the fact that I didn't really know the album until about two weeks ago. Spot 1019, who had already released one album on Pitch-A-Tent prior to Buzz, was one of those bands that I had heard good things about but that I never got around to hearing. Moreso than Ten Foot Faces, they seemed poised for bigger things around that time. By 1990 they were on Frontier Records, an indie label that might have been a step or two about Pitch-A-Tent but that was the last I heard from them.

I decided to go out of order and buy this before getting the self-titled debut, in part because I wanted to hear the record that I had referenced all the time. The four-piece is definitely darker than Ten Foot Faces, a little more punk rock. Vocalist Joe Sloan is a little nasal and more of a belter, but he sounds pretty theatrical too. One has to wonder what kind of performance they unleashed on an audience at Dianne's.

Spot 1019 could've been right at home on a bill with Death of Samantha. Sloan is just as literate as John Petkovic too. The album opens with the line, "My memory takes me back in time to the pillory of lovers lost." Later on the same side, Sloan (with help from bassist Jimb Lyons) sings, "I try to drop a hint/but all I drop is my drink/God give me strength." This same song, "Think and Grow Thin," also contains a satire on Jim Morrison's infamous "Dawn's Highway" story, which Sloan fires off at rapid-fire speed.

Despite their near-hardcore tempos on a few songs, a country music background can be felt in the melodies here, and in Greg Winter's galloping beats on a few songs. The album is a really great balance of elaborate tracks ("Bucket of Blood") and the more basic punk stuff ("Peace War," "Free Men Bear Arms"). The latter also presents a sarcastic take on the gun issue that probably wouldn't float these days.

Wrestling Worms
Wrestling Worms

The rather lo-fi Wrestling Worms track on At Dianne's Place ("Vegetable Tune") recalled Pittsburgh's Stick Against Stone to my ears, and those of anyone who remembered that local group and heard the Worms. Funky bassline, a bunch of horns all taking turns soloing quickly over a vamp, and a vocalist who had a flair for the theatrical delivery - we had that too!

Aside from the lack of disposable income, I never picked up the Wrestling Worms album because my friends at WPTS (where I would DJ about six months later) said they didn't really dig it. 30 years later, I figured time might make any lackluster moments a little easier to take. Maybe even enjoyable. Plus the 11X17 foldout/lyric sheet reveal the Wrestling Worms had grown ELEVEN members, six of them playing horns, with one of the drummers doubling on French horn. What could go wrong?

Truth be told, the album is growing on me. They are some great horn charts on the album, which involve trumpet, trombone, and saxophones ranging from soprano to tenor, with clarinets added occasionally. But percussionist Andrew Bigler does the majority of the lead vocals, in a thin voice that sounds like he's heard a lot of Frank Zappa. What he sings gets clever and surreal, but his delivery starts to sound the same after awhile.

The fact that 11 people could pull off in the studio is commendable and for that reason alone, Wrestling Worms is worth a good rediscovery.

Of course the big question now becomes - where are all these folks now? Who has continued to play music and who did it for awhile until it was time to move onto something else? These are the things I need to know. While I could very easily go onto Facebook and type in the names of a select few, it would be more exciting if we made a connection here. There you go, bands.

Finally, if anyone reading this has the sole album/cassette by Dianne's Place contributors Barnacle Choir, I'd sure love to get a copy.

Now I'm off to get a copy of the first Spot 1019. And you should pick up At Dianne's Place, but make sure it has the booklet.

Monday, August 13, 2018

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

Rodrigo Amado
A History of Nothing
(Trost) www.trost.at

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) www.trost.at

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
(hatOLOGY) hathut.com

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) www.sharelcassity.com

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.