Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Recap of the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival

My dispatch from the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival is up and readable on the Pittsburgh Current page, so please check it out.  Since there wasn't enough room to post a ton of photos on the site, here are a few good ones from the event.
Sean Jones (right) sat in with Butcher Brown, featuring Marcus Tenney

Warren Wolf gave a history of the vibes

Keyon Harrold played an emotionally-charged set. 

Captain Black Big Band, led by Orrin Evans, who's hidden, stage left at the piano

Jessica Care Moore, who started Black Women Rock

Nona Hendryx brought the house down at Black Women Rock

Charles Lloyd played flute and tenor sax, with bassist Reuben Rogers

Friday, June 28, 2019

CD Review: Nature Work

Nature Work
Nature Work

The term "nature work" comes from bass clarinetist Jason Stein. To reach a certain point in improvisation, a musician needs to shut off the conscious mind and let the subconscious take over. By seeing the subconscious as a natural expression, therefore, playing music can be considered "nature work," according to Stein. So don't let the album cover fool you. This is not pastoral music representing all creatures great and small. This is free thinking music that still knows how to swing, born on the vibrant streets of Chicago, with some influence coming from Brooklyn, Berlin and Los Angeles.

Stein and alto saxophonist Greg Ward have worked together in numerous setting in the Windy City, most recently on a tour with Mike Reed's Flesh and Bone group. Both of them composed pieces for this quartet, with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jim Black. The group itself came together for two performances earlier this year, with the recording session coming quickly thereafter. Maybe the group was just excited to document material that was so new, or maybe the comfort they felt with one another gave them the ease to really make it fly. Either way, Nature Work is full of fire.

Jim Black has always been a spastic drummer who's ready to utilize his entire kit - and random percussion artillery - at all times. "Zenith" centers around him in the theme, where his drums get punctuated by the horns instead of the other way around. Stein seems totally inspired by the drums, wailing in the upper register before Ward joins him in a new closing theme. Revis (a member of the Branford Marsalis Quartet and Tarbaby) feels right at home here, and in pieces like the free floating "Opter Fopter," where he straddles bow scrapes and dynamic plucking. When a tune requires him to keep it simple ("Cryptic Ripple"), Revis holds down the riff, until of course things go wild in the end.

Both reed players sound extra inspired, perhaps because of being in each other's company. In "Tah Dazzle," Ward doesn't lock in with the rhythm section, but he has some internal rhythmic ideas that he puts out that still blend right in with the bass and drums. When the pattern in blowing section shifts into a chord change, Stein leans hard into it, which adds to the excitement.

There are plenty of other examples of this on the album, blending uninhibited blowing and sly themes ("Hem the Jewels," "South Hempstead") as well as jerky themes that leap the forefront immediately ("The Shiver"). Considering the far-flung residences of the band members, it's hard to say when they'll reconvene, so listen to this often.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival - Prelude to a Recap

I'm going to write a whole report for Pittsburgh Current on the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival, which took place last week. In the meantime, I figured I'd do a teaser with a few very Pittsburgh-centric photos from last Friday. 

Last Friday, the festival hosted a Jazz Crawl in Downtown Pittsburgh, where several venues presented local musicians during Happy Hour. The Original Oyster House - a Pittsburgh institution - hosted the Tony Campbell Quartet, with Mr. Campbell on alto saxophone, Dr. James Johnson II on piano, Tony DePaolis on bass and John Korpiel on drums. There was no better way to dig this group but to take them in while having a Famous Fish Sandwich for dinner, which is just what I did.

But there was more to the set. Fred Pugh, who is something of a catalyst around town when it comes to music events (he was the one who got me to the Crawford Grill in the early '00s and he has his own FP3 Promotions now) got up and sang "Bye Bye Blackbird" and a few others in his rich voice. It was a great way to start the weekend. After thinking about doing this for several years, I finally requested to have the whole weekend off to check out the event.

Friday, May 31, 2019

My Dinner with Roky or RIP Roky Erickson

Roky Erickson has passed away. May he rest in peace. His life seemed to be a series of steep ups and downs, but it appears that in his final years, he got to do the thing he liked best of all: play music. He might not have been a rock superstar but his music inspired a lot of people who took inspiration from him and did it themselves.

I got to meet and hang out with Roky on a few occasions when he was living in Pittsburgh with his brother Sumner. Roky was getting his life back on track and while it was far from a rock and roll experience, it gave me some things that have stuck with me ever since.

I had heard about the 13th Floor Elevators since I was a teenager. Being fascinated with all sort of '60s rock, I wanted to hear the band. When I discovered how rare their original albums were, it made them even more appealing to me. Easter Everywhere wasn't the best introduction for my ears. When I finally did hear it, on a reissue in the '80s, it felt a little too wordy to me. There weren't enough crazy guitar solos like Vanilla Fudge or Iron Butterfly (my two heavy psych references at that point). During college, when I finally heard their debut Psychedelic Sounds of... and also Bongwater's covers of "You Don't Love Me Yet" and "Splash 1," I had the background to appreciate them. The Dylanesque trip of "Slip Inside This House" left a better impression too.

Then we had dinner together.

The year was 2001, maybe 2000. Sumner lived in Pittsburgh where he was a tubaist in the Pittsburgh Symphony. Roky was living with him for a time, getting his life and his mind back in order. My friend Grant knew Sumner, who said that Roky liked to get out of the house while he practiced the tuba. Grant suggested that he, Roky and I go out for dinner together. At the time, I was on staff at InPittsburgh and I thought this would make a great story: Psychedelic Rock Originator Living in Mt. Washington! I understood that Roky might be a little fragile and not ready for a proper interview. And I certainly didn't want to write something that would come off as exploitative. But I figured it'd be good to get to know the guy. Hell, meeting him would be cool!

We made plans to pick him up at the house where the brothers lived in Mt. Washington. Sumner took us in the house and called Roky, who answered from the top of the steps in a Texas drawl. Instead of the wild and woolly guy I had seen on album covers for the past 15 years, the man who finally came down had short hair and neatly trimmed beard and mustache. Maybe not exactly like Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti, but somewhere in the vicinity.

"Good t'see y'again," he said a couple times when we were introduced. Maybe he had met Grant before but this was the first time he and I ever crossed paths. Still, when he said those words, the enthusiasm was infectious and it put me at ease. It also gave me a phrase that I've repeated since then with a few friends who are in the know.

We went to a Mexican restaurant in Oakland where Roky had become a regular. The owner greeted him at the door with, "Hey, amigo," clearly recognizing him from previous visits. He surely had no clue that this happy-go-lucky fellow was one of the originators of Psychedelic Rock, but it didn't matter. Roky just seemed happy to have friends that greeted him like that. During dinner there were periods where he would get quiet and just keep to himself, and Grant and I had our own conversations. But at one point, Roky brought up the name of Red Krayola, an Austin band that was a contemporary of the 13th Floor Elevators. Up until that point, Roky seemed like he either didn't want to talk about his past or his memory of it was a little fuzzy. When this happened, it came out of the blue and it was cool.

Roky and I had one more dinner date after that. I still felt wary of being exploitative and anyway InPittsburgh went out of business in the fall of 2001 and I never got to write the article. We never saw each other again. Sometime a year or two later there was a benefit/tribute concert for him at the Rex Theater, where he was in attendance. One friend who was there said he looked kind of uncomfortable, like the crowd was a little much for him. A few years later - my details are fuzzy on this part - he moved back to Texas.

A few documentaries were made about him, one apparently showing him in a rather radical type of therapy that helped him get his life back in order. I always wanted thought I should watch it, if nothing else to see where he was coming from. But time slipped away.

A few years prior to meeting Roky, a filmmaker came to town to screen a doc that he had made about Roky. I was enlisted by the then-editor of InPgh to put a band together that would play a few 13th Floor Elevators songs before the screening. (I wound up playing drums for that band instead of bass.) It was cool except that the filmmaker fronted the band  and his rhythm guitar was cranked up louder than anything else onstage, including the lead guitar playing of my friend Rob, who still bitches about it if the subject comes up. (Rob is an amazing guitar player, so I don't blame him.)

Then again that type of situation might be indicative of Roky's life: a little scattered but stuck in your mental draintrap all these years later.

Good t'see y'again.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

CD Review: Samantha Boshnack's Seismic Belt - Live in Santa Monica

Samantha Boshnack's Seismic Belt
Live in Santa Monica

Trumpeter Samantha Boshnack hails from rural New York, but after studying at Bard College, she made her way to the Pacific Northwest where Seattle has been her home base for the past 15 years. She has received several commissions and residency spots, and has worked with Wayne Horvitz (himself a Northwest resident), drummer Jim Black and the late Butch Morris, to name just a few collaborators. She has also lead groups of varying sizes. B'shnorkestra is a 14-piece orchestral ensemble, while the Sam Boshnack Quintet toys with more avant-garde jazz. 

Seismic Belt represents Boshnack's attempt to combine both of these stylistic qualities in one group. Along with a piano-bass-drums rhythm section, it features the leader's trumpet in the company of a  saxophonist alternating on baritone and tenor, and two string players. The music, commissioned by the California-based 18th Street Art Center's Make a Jazz Fellowship (and sponsored by the Herb Alpert Foundation), is inspired by the Ring of Fire, a horseshoe-shaped region around the Pacific populated with most of the world's volcanoes and which experiences 90% of the world's earthquakes. 

Like the multiple layers of the earth's strata, the music has several interlocking parts. Drummer Dan Schnelle and bassist Nashir Janmohamed hold down complex ostinatos, occasionally joined by pianist Paul Cornish when he isn't moving with the rest of the group or adding another counterpoint. 

Lauren Elizabeth Baba (violin, viola) and Paris Hurley (violin) add a frequently eerie, uncertain quality to the music, which Boshnack matches with a tone that expresses the inquisitive feeling that inspired this song cycle. She favors the warm, middle range of her horn, never getting overly animated except during "Churo." Baba and Hurley take care of that, often following the trumpeter with solos that get more frantic. Saxophonist Ryan Parrish also kicks up dust on tracks like "The Summer That Never Came" where Hurley picks up further on the idea.

Although the melodies provide the main focus on the album - and Boshnack reels off solos like the one in "Subduction Zone" that feels like an elaborate thought - the rhythm section sounds comparably subdued, at least on the recording. Schnelle offers a strong solo on that same track, but too often he and Janmohamed settle into the background, offering support but not really driving the music. The approach means that the dynamics on several tracks and don't provide enough to distinguish them from one another. The closing "Submarine Volcano" makes a break, with a call and response section between Cornish and the rest of the band, followed by a strong Parrish solo on tenor. But if the group had kicked the energy up a notch earlier, it would have elevated Boshnack's writing even further. 

CD Review: Stephen Gauci's Live at the Bushwick Series, studio session with Cooper Moore

Stephen Gauci/Sandy Ewen/Adam Lane/Kevin Shea
Live at the Bushwick Series

Chris Welcome
Beyond All Things

Cooper Moore/Stephen Gauci
Studio Session Volume 1


If you happen to be in the New York area on a Monday night, get on over to the Bushwick Public House on Myrtle Street in Brooklyn. For the past two years (June marks the second anniversary), tenor saxophonist Stephen Gauci has been hosting the Bushwick Series, a weekly improvised music event. Six different bands play from 7:00 pm to 12:30 pm, each week. (While that number seems a bit crowded, the Series seems to run smoothly, with everyone getting to play a short but full set.)

In an email he sent to me earlier this year, Gauci said he envisioned the night as a hybrid between a jam session and a concert series, giving the music a proper venue, with hopes that it would become a place for musicians to hang rather than simply play and split. It seems to have met his hopes. Not just younger musicians but a handful of more established players frequently drop by each week. At a time when any series might have trouble surviving and when improvising musicians struggle to find an audience, this event should be commended and supported.

Gauci live-streams sets each week on his Facebook page so folks outside New York can see what they're missing. The entire set of over 500 video performances can be found here as well. Two of these three releases on his label document live sets. The saxophonist plays each week with his trio of bassist Adam Lane and drummer Kevin Shea. On the night their CD was recorded (no date is listed) they were joined by prepared guitarist Sandy Ewen.

The three-track disc begins with an everyone-for-themselves feeling of free blowing. Gauci begins with some upper register wails over the skittering rhythm section. But the whole set features variety in their approach. In track two (no song titles are listed on any of these discs), the tenor gets loud a few times but he generally holds it down, playing some simple melodies while his partners run wild behind and around him. Shea gets particularly spastic, clattering at times like Tony Oxley. The final 22-minute track begins with some rapid plucking from Lane and goes on to alternate between free sections and themes presented by Gauci. Ewen's prepared axe adds percussive color through most of the set, but in the final seconds, she adopts a surfy twang as she and Gauci take things out.

Guitarist Chris Welcome is involved with several groups in New York, including Hot Date (a sound collage duo) and Chaser (a harder group), which both feature bassist Shayna Dulberger, who played with him on Beyond All Things. This 28-minute continuous performance also includes Jaimie Branch (trumpet), Kirk Knuffke (Bb & Eb cornets), Anthony Ware (alto sax), Sam Weinberg (tenor sax), Ben Gerstein (trombone, percussion), Mike Pride (drums, percussion). It begins with a joyous blast of gong crashes and horn blasts, not unlike the Art Ensemble of Chicago or the opening moments of a Sun Ra Arkestra performance from more recent years. The horns eventually play a loosely structured theme, with pedal drones still resonating beneath them. The whole piece sounds cohesive and spontaneous but a few count-in directions can be heard during the performance, implying that some music was written-down or pre-determined. The recurring themes feel a little dissonant or minor compared to the initial one. Yet moments like the interactions between Gerstein and Welcome (who must be using effects that often sound like primitive synthesizers) give the music plenty of energy and keep the mood rather festive.

Mike Watt of the Minutemen used to say that records were like flyers, meaning the recordings were meant to motivate listeners to come to the next show. That's exactly what these two discs do. Both have good sound quality, capturing the natural feel of a band in a room, without any production effects added to clean it up. It can make you wish you were there.

Incidentally, on Monday, June 3, Welcome's 10:45 set serves as a CD release show, according to the schedule. Judging from the personnel listed for that evening, it celebrates Beyond All Things. If I'm wrong that means he's already put out something new, in which case, more power to him.

Studio Session Vol. 1 breaks with the Bushwick Series setting, placing Gauci's tenor in the recording studio with pianist Cooper Moore. Together they create uninhibited energy music which moves loosely but also shows their high level of communication. When Cooper Moore introduces a subtle piano figure, Gauci responds in kind, figuring out what direction the music should take, harmonically. The saxophonist's altissimo range is particularly strong and he frequently uses it less as a method of wild punctuation and more like a vehicle for peeling off some intense melodies. His partner's work includes everything from fragmented arpeggios, notes hanging alone in the air and percussive sounds that could either be pedal manipulation or ten fingers rapping on the keys. While things get a bit raucous, especially during the final 11-minute track, the energy and rapport never dissipates during the album.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Missing Live Music But Buying Records from Jerry (a sort of grumpy rant that ends with a comedian)

I really hate missing shows. Maybe missing out on a night of music is simply a factor in growing older. Life will go on and - as our parents might tell us - there will be other shows. (I'm at that age, so I might as well say it too, though it hurts a little.)

But damn, I've missed some gooders this year. Bob Mould, earlier this year for one.Jonathan Finlayson came back and I missed him. Then this week: Sebadoh on Wednesday; Michael Formanek's new quartet AND, at another venue, local vibraphonist (and drummer and dulcimer maestro) Jeff Berman's trio; then last night New York saxophonist Brian Krock's quartet came to town with the Pittsburgh Saxophone Quartet opening up. I feel especially bad about that one because I tried to get some press for that show but only succeeded in a calendar blurb for Pittsburgh Current which I haven't seen yet because I haven't come across the recent issue and it's also not online. Maybe I shouldn't feel guilty or beholden to any publicists, but there's that part of me that treats this music writing as a crusade that I need to continue.When I drop the ball, I get mad at myself.

And the reason I missed all these shows? Work. I've been on the closing shifts at work pretty much all week. Granted I feel thankful because I requested and received Sunday off to go to a baseball game with my son. But goddamit, I would like to have it both ways, unrealistic as that is. It puts me in a quandary about what to do.

I typically work until 10:00 or 10:30, which really means that by the time I get into the car and head out of the parking lot, it's 10:15 or 10:45. And I work at least 20 minutes away from where all the shows are. Another thing that's become a little more of a trend around Pittsburgh is that shows start and end on the early side these days. Most 50-something guys would really like that, but not this one. Sometimes I can make it to a show in time to catch some of the final songs in the set. But there have been many times where I've gotten there in time for the last verse of the last song. When that happens I feel like I'm better off just skipping the show. One night (when I wasn't working but got out late due to family stuff) I got to a venue at about 10:00 and totally missed the whole thing. I'm not expecting shows to drag on until 2:00 a.m. like the good old bad days, but a happy medium would be nice. Some old guys want to rock. AND still get up on the early side the next day.


For the past week, local Vinyl Man himself Jerry Weber has been selling records at the Irish Center of Pittsburgh. He did this last year and a few years before too. This time he's doing it for eight whole days, today being the last. When I went last year there wasn't a whole lot in the bins that spoke to me. I ended up paying a dollar each for Dave Dudley's Truck Driving Son of a Gun and a Ray Conniff album that I had as a kid.

This year I went on a Tuesday morning when there was hardly anyone there so I had a chance to look without feeling cramped. (That was the other thing about last year - it was wall-to-wall people.) Selection was better this year, with more things in the $3-$7 range. I found a Chris Connor album on original black label Atlantic, and Lenny Bruce's What I Was Arrested For which I have on cassette somewhere but is good to have in the Lenny collection.

And just for the hell of it, I picked up an album by comedian George Gobel. I know him predominantly for his appearances on The Hollywood Squares where he did little to really distinguish himself as a comedian. I remember his knit sweaters and his flattop haircut most of all. But, like radio announcer Harry Von Zell, there's something about Mr. Gobel that just warms my heart, so I had to get the album.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

CD Review: Dave Scott - In Search of Hipness

Dave Scott
In Search of Hipness

Too often, being hip has a pejorative connotation, from the clueless protagonist in Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg's "I'm Hip" to current-day hipsters selling their own kombucha or IPA. But trumpeter Dave Scott is taking back the word.

The hipness that Scott seeks has nothing to do with being designated as cool guy. He isn't being ironic either, in an effort to make jokes about being "hip with the kids" or anything like that. Hipness, to him, has a more zen quality. The title track, he explains in his liner notes, "speaks to the never-ending quest of enlightenment, musically or otherwise. The beauty of the creative process is that it is ongoing, and as artists we always strive to find a higher level."

Dig. Now that is heavy.

To some degree, In Search of Hipness feels like a live performance to these ears. Four of the seven songs last between 12 and 15 minutes. Not merely blowing vehicles, these pieces often include several sections. They also give the soloists chance to stretch and reveal themselves, and they aren't worried about keeping things to a certain length.

That being said, the opening track proves to be the exception. "Ludwig" is built on a rolling rubato melody inspired by Mr. Beethoven. It also serves as an introduction to the sextet's instrumentation. Along with Scott's trumpet, Sarah Bernstein's violin and Nate Radley's guitar play flowing melodies over a sinister foundation created by Jacob Sacks (piano) and Dave Ambrosio (bass). After stating the theme, this could have gone into any type of solos: free blowing or something played over a modal vamp both come to mind. Instead, "Ludwig" comes to a close after the theme, barely lasting three minutes but making a strong impact.

Scott's trumpet and Bernstein's violin make great melodic partners in "Time Dilation," a piece which changes time signatures three times during its theme.  In another bold move, Ambrosio's bass takes the first solo, going against drummer Mark Ferber's steady rhythm to really sing. Sacks' left hand descends down the piano next, moving away from the freedom in the right hand but always meeting the drums to accent the crash at the end of a phrase. When Scott enters for his solo, he sounds inquisitive at first. But like everyone who precedes him, he never lets the complex rhythm of the song constrain his melodic sense.

After a number of equally strong bits of adventure, Scott closes the set by playing "Black Hole" with a Harmon mute. The piece has harmonic freedom but the tone brings his scope full circle, showing the way that a trumpeter can take some Miles Davis inspiration and inject it with other things along the way. He says as much in the liner notes, but it's equally noticeable in the music, especially when put at the end of the album. While free improvisation and straight, chord-based music both have their values, Scott proves that they can coexist. And they can sound hip as well.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Rediscovering Peggy Lipton

The Mod Squad was syndicated in reruns when I was in first or second grade, which seems to match up with the end of the initial broadcast. It came on in the weekday afternoons right as I was getting home from school. I was probably hooked initially by the opening theme sequence, with the punchy theme song and scene of the cast running through the underground sewer system of LA (or whatever that was). I loved a lot of theme songs (Medical Center, Sanford & Son) but often lost interest once the show started. After awhile, though, the cast of The Mod Squad really grew on me. Linc Hayes (played by Clarence Williams III, whose real name was cool in and of itself) was my favorite. 

At some point, my mom told me she didn't want me watching the show because it was too violent. In retrospect, I'm not sure if that was the reason or if had to do with the subject matter. In high school, a teacher once told my class that abortion was mentioned on The Mod Squad. This teacher wasn't very good and a bit alarmist, so I don't know how accurate she was, but between any mention of abortion and maybe pot, I can see why a mother might not want her six-year old watching the show. 

In our house - probably since my uncle was frequently a guest star on tv shows (including two episodes of The Monkees) - it was not uncommon for us to become familiar with the names of actors on a show. Thanks in part to a commercial that the local station created for the show, I knew the names of Williams, Michael Cole and Peggy Lipton. So when my mom told me she saw an album by Peggy Lipton, I had to hear it. (In retrospect, I wonder if she came across it at the 5&10 where she found the Rugbys and the Hassles.) 

Once she bought it for me, I stared at the album, pictured above, a lot, until Lipton's eyes looked a little too intense. Then I'd open up the cover, because  of course it was a gatefold with a few more pictures, including one of her squatting down barefoot on a rock, looking coyly at the camera. The other two inside shots caught her looking away from the lens. 

When I first got discovered used record stores around middle school, I tried selling a stack of albums to a couple places thinking I'd get some good money for them. I couldn't understand why they didn't want Three Dog Night's Cyan and a few other questionable things. By that time, I was over Peggy Lipton and after trying to unload it locally, I shipped it off to a used mail order store in San Francisco who gave me about $1.00 in credit for it. 

Back to the current times. There's a beer we sell at work called Lager of the Lakes, which made me think of a song on the album called "Lady of the Lake." That was a gateway to a few other memories of the album. I recalled really liking Lipton's version of Laura Nyro's "Stoney End." Plus, her version of "Natural Woman" was the first one I ever heard. A few days ago, I decided to see if it was on Spotify and to check it out again. (We recently got a family deal for Spotify so after several years, I have taken the plunge. I still only use it for research, as you'll see here, rather than as a substitute for buying music.)

Sure enough, Peggy Lipton was there in all its "Expanded Version" glory. A few things are apparent from the opening bars. The kid could sing. She could also write a decent song too. "Let Me Pass By," one of the four that Peggy wrote, ain't a bad little tune. And that message of letting her do her thing and spread her wings? Right on, sister. 

There's something else that hits you immediately: strings. This is not some attempt to cash in on Peggy's counterculture cred, surrounding her with a rock band. This is an attempt to make her palatable to Middle America. The Wrecking Crew provides the rhythm section but without even checking the credits, I recognized the gentle voicings of arranger Marty Paich. That comes in part because they sound an awful lot like the charts that he wrote for Spirit's first album, which like Peggy Lipton was also on Ode. A lot of violins, some flutes, an oboe or two. With backing vocals by a group called the Blossoms, I'm sure this album appealed to me in the same with the 5th Dimension did. Those Laura Nyro songs didn't hurt either, though even as a kid, the title of "Hands Off the Man (Flim Flam Man)" was too silly for me enjoy. 

In the bonus department, there's a version of "Just a Little Lovin' (Early In the Morning)" which was also recorded by Stony Brook People, a band that was I knew around the same time. My childhood worlds are colliding! There was also a really slow version of Donovan's "Wear Your Love Like Heaven." (Upon checking Discogs, it seems like The Complete Ode Recordings also has versions of Pet Sounds' "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" and Bacharach's "Wanting Things.") 

After a while, it started to seem like all the songs were in the same key. That thought occurred to me while getting through the bonus tracks, which weren't meant initially to be heard in sequence, but it felt like Peggy had been in the same key for more than half the album. So maybe it fulfilled a curiosity and kept me from doing the mid-life crisis thing and plunking down some serious bucks for an original copy of the album - or the Complete set, which looks pretty expensive. 

But if the album ever turns up at a yard sale or flea market, I'll have to snatch it up.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

CD Review: Michaël Attias - échos la nuit/ Larry Grenadier - The Gleaners

Michaël Attias
échos la nuit
(Our Of Your Head)

Larry Grenadier
The Gleaners

Michaël Attias and Larry Grenadier each went into the recording studio alone for these albums. The similarity between these albums really ends there, although both of them captured the qualities that can make a solo album as rewarding a listen as any session with a group.

For échos la nuit, Attias plays both alto saxophone and piano, often simultaneously. He didn't overdub in the session. His left hand played alto while his right handled the keys. In some ways, it's almost as if he took Rahsaan Roland Kirk's two- or three-horn approach and expanded upon it. The piano often acts as an accompaniment to his crisp saxophone lines, confirming them in "Echoes I Mauve" and returning to the main phrase introduced by the horn. They also move together in the angular "Trinité," clashing on an interval at the end of a phrase and sticking to their respective notes, like a left/right battle of wits. The piano strings reverberate when Attias hits a certain note in sax-only"Circles," sustaining and echoing the sound.

Attias shows dexterity and ease when playing both instruments together. If things sound rigid, the music calls for it, not for lack of ideas. Some tracks are based on snippets Attias had in his head for a dozen years but the session was largely improvised in just over an hour. So even if he forgoes the piano and gets introspective or stuck on an idea (the repetitive "Rue Oberkampf" is based on his studies of the Schillinger Technique), he adds something to the music to keep it from merely sounding like an exercise and gives it a proper payoff.

Solo bass albums can be some of the more challenging of the single instrument solo performances, due to its stark soundscape and the way frequency range where it lives. As on any album devoted to one instrument, a player can forget about songs and get lost in a display of various techniques (pizzicato/arco, low and eerie/high and shrill). But that hasn't stopped ECM from releasing numerous albums devoted to the instrument, starting with Dave Holland and Gary Peacock, leading up to last year's exemplary End to End by Barre Phillips, which I kept meaning to write about here.

Larry Grenadier could arguably called ubiquitous. His name appears frequently on albums, from his long tenure in Brad Mehldau's trio to time with Paul Motian and Pat Metheny and the cooperative trio Fly. The Gleaners comes off like a well-organized recital because each track feels like a developed composition.

"Pettiford" might be a largely improvised homage to the bebop legend, but Grenadier lays out his lines, flowing from short phrases to boppish riffs, in an extended complete work. The way he strikes his instrument, heavily but not heavy-handed, is spellbinding, and lets the wood resonate. The wood can be heard too when he uses his bow, especially when he spends time in the upper register ("Oceanic"), playing with rich clarity. One of two bagatelles composed by guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel features Grenadier's strings gracefully harmonizing, bringing out the power of the brief track's slow melody. In the countryfied "Woebegone" he plays rhythm and accompaniment simultaneously, overdubbing a second bass track.

I've often said that solo albums give a chance to get inside the head of a musician and find out what goes on. If these two albums are any indication, Attias and Grenadier's minds are hubs of activity with constant movement and development happening.

Monday, April 08, 2019

CD Review: Anna Webber - Clockwise

Anna Webber

Anna Webber came to Pittsburgh last fall with bassist Adam Hopkins' Crickets band, in which her tenor acted as one-third of a saxophone section that added to the free jazz-cum-indie rock style of the music. But that set offered no indication of what appears on Clockwise, Webber's tenth album under her own name.

These compositions were inspired by percussion works of 20th-century composers, among them Iannis Xenakis, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Edgard Varése and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Rather than appropriating their music, she extracted ideas from them, often creating works that begin with rigid, almost minimal movement. They're executed by a septet that moves beyond the percussive foundation of the work, while frequently maintaining a stark, unsettling quality to the writing.

Things get off to an unsettling start with a literal clockwise grouping of instruments in "Korē II." Cello (Christopher Hoffman), bass (Chris Tordini) and Webber's tenor overtone honk create a rhythmic cycle that skips every so often. Gradually Matt Mitchell (piano), Jeremy Viner (clarinet), Jacob Garchik (trombone) and Ches Smith (drums) flesh things out by cutting in with another segment, making it sound like the whole thing was created through editing and looping. It wasn't, as indicated by some added clarinet and cello noise, and Smith's fills. Like its bookend, "Korē I" the addition of these slight embellishments (in "I" they come when Tordini adds some passing tones) keep things from sounding stiff.

But the jerkiness of "Korē II" is no preparation for the abrasive blend of Webber and Viner's tenors that continue for the first two minutes of "Idiom II." When they finally break and Hoffman moves into a solo, it almost sounds like he's apologizing for the horns' imitation of whiny children.

Beyond that, Clockwise features a pretty compelling blend of adventurous writing and playing. It might be the instrumentation but Webber's writing sometimes evokes thoughts of Henry Threadgill. The movement of the music might not be apparent but the players move with clear direction. A piece like "Array" goes into different sections and where it lands comes as a complete surprise, one that begs for further examination.

Webber only gives herself one opportunity to show off her tenor skills, in  the 1:39 "Hologram Best." Much of the time she plays flute, alto flute or bass flute, contributing layers to this intriguing music instead of acting as an improviser. Viner takes the tenor solo in "Loper" a piece that builds up slowly for ten minutes, following the opening blast in "King of Denmark I." The other two "King" tracks on the album are short improvisations by Smith and Tordini respectively which Webber edited and reconstructed.

The methods Webber used on Clockwise - transferring percussive ideas to melodic instruments, emphasizing timbre - aren't explained in liner notes. Without any road map, listeners might be left scratching their heads at the music. Like the composers from which took inspiration, this set comes off more like contemporary new music rather than jazz. Improvisation factors into it, but often it sounds more like something pre-composed but played with a spontaneous feeling. At the same time, much of requires repeated examination and, for the most part, the music inspires that feeling - as well as a desire to hear the 10 albums that Webber released prior to Clockwise.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

CD Review: Moppa Elliott - Jazz Band/ Rock Band/ Dance Band

Moppa Elliott
Jazz Band/Rock Band/Dance Band
(Hot Cup)

Moppa Elliott is not one to shy away from a big concept. The bassist, after all, took part in a note-for-note recreation of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue with the release of Blue by his band Mostly Other People Do the Killing. That band's m.o. from their earliest days was to be able to both play free and be able to a "genuinely convincing version of rhythm changes if we want to," as he told me a couple years ago. Elliott, and by extension the group which otherwise played his compositions almost exclusively, might have been a little provocative at times, and perhaps a bit ironic, but the guy knows the music inside and out. He know what he's talking about.

The scope of Jazz Band/Rock Band/ Dance Band brings forth a triumvirate of bands, each executed separately. Spread over two discs (or three records, according to the press kit) Elliott convenes three groups that live up to the album title: Advancing on a Wild Pitch, a straight ahead jazz quintet; Unspeakable Garbage, a quintet that plays instrumental rock; and Acceleration Due to Gravity, a nine-piece group that might not exactly be a dance band in a modern or traditional sense, but nevertheless produces a strong set.

Jazz Band features Sam Kulik's trombone and Charles Evans' baritone sax in front of a rhythm section consisting of Elliott, pianist Danny Fox and drummer Christian Coleman. This album features compositions from the MOPDtK book taken in a largely straightforward direction. ("Slab" is the only new composition.) The blend of the two lower horns gives the session a particularly rich sound.

While the arrangements of the slow waltz "Can't Tell Shipp from Shohola" approximates the version that appeared on Slippery Rock, hearing it without Kevin Shea's gargantuan press rolls allows it to become more like a ballad. "Herminie," dedicated to pianist Sonny Clark, settles more into the Horace Silver-esque bass line (think of "Que Pasa"), and, like a number of these tracks, creates music that would have sounded right at home on a '60s Blue Note album. Note - that's much different that an album that tries to sound like or recreates the feeling of an album like that. Furthermore, Moppa the band leader, Moppa the record label owner and Moppa the bassist have been recognized. This disc pays special attention to Moppa the composer.

Rock Band was inspired by a love of '80s rock music by members of the group that play on this session. Although they appear with era-appropriate pseudonyms on the cover, it consists of Elliott, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, drummer Dan Monaghan, keyboardist Ron Stabinsky and guitarist Nick Millevoi. On first examination, this set evokes one clear thought to someone who grew up in the not-always-awesome decade that it evokes: television theme songs. In the previous decade, funk made its way into living rooms via Sanford & Son and Barney Miller. In the '80s, the studios were merging big band charts  - and strings - with distorted guitars in a crossover attempt, much as the network brass was trying to lure viewers.. Catchy melodies were still there, but Magnum P.I.  and the sax-heavy opening to Cagney & Lacey added some steroids to the sound.

It's not hard to imagine a freeze frame on a smiling supporting cast member while listening to the anthemic "Stone Hill." "Big Rock," the final track, even moves with the farewell of a closing theme, as the credits role. During the themes of these cuts, Irabagon could very well be Tom Scott, belting away as if he's afraid of being drown out by the amplifiers.


Listen a few more times and you realize Scott would never unleash a torrent of altissimo wails and make a complete statement with them like Irabagon does in "Rocks, MD." (James Carter might, but that's another story.) Scott would also never get into a battle of noisy wits with a Farfisa organ as it happens in the punchy "Punxsutawney." Once the culture shock wears off, the charm sets in. This is no novelty. Elliott means it. Or if he doesn't, I'm still watching. Um... listening.

Dance Band features the bassist along with Ava Mendoza (guitar), Bryan Murray (soprano, tenor and his own balto! saxophone), Matt Murray (alto, soprano), Kyle Saunier (baritone), Nate Wooley (trumpet), Dave Taylor (trombone),  George Burton (piano) and Mike Pride (drums). It also has some of the wildest performances of the whole set.

This set features the one non-Elliott piece in the form of Kanye West's "Power." The arrangement will most likely leave its author scratching his head. In addition to regular interjections for King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man," it includes a pungent alto solo by Murray, followed by an absolutely searing trumpet solo from Wooley, a harmonized soprano duet that could have been lifted from the last track and a final statement from Mendoza. The rest of the set is equally dense, coming off sometimes as heavy but also highly layered.

It all makes you wonder how Moppa Elliott can follow a magnum opus like this.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Saying Goodbye to Juke Records and Bill Oliver

Yesterday was a rare Saturday for me because I wasn't scheduled to work. (The weekend is prime work time when you're in retail.) In thinking about what I could do, if I got beyond all the commitments I had for the day, the natural thought of going to a record store made its way to my mental surface. (Even though I have plenty of new music to keep me occupied at the moment.)

At that point it occurred to me that it was the first time in the last 38 years that I couldn't do any record shopping at 4526 Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield. Juke Records closed their doors last weekend, a little more than a month after they announced that the end was near.  The shop was the final iteration of a storefront that began in the late '70s as Jim's Records, which became Paul's CDs in the mid '90s. The late Karl Hendricks bought the business in 2012 and rechristened it Sound Cat Records. When his illness got worse, he sold it to Jeff Gallagher who ran Juke.

I actually wrote a column about it for Pittsburgh Current several weeks ago, kind of meditating on the end of it. It can be found here. I'm rather happy with how it turned out so please give it a read.

Another loss this week came when I heard about the passing of Pittsburgh musician Bill Oliver. He had been battling MS for several years and had been unable to get around for the last few years. Michael from the Cynics said he visited him a few times and encouraged me to come along. It was a noble idea but as usual I overthought it, wondering if work and family and the search for work (when that was an issue) would allow it. In the last year or so, Bill was more active on Facebook. I often woke up to 4 a.m. messages from him with links to Beatles videos. He was often engaged in conversations with people online which made me think that maybe he was making some sort of rebound. One of the last times I spoke to him in person he mentioned some sort of treatment that might help him. Sadly it was not to be.

Bill and I first around the same time that I started going to Jim's Records. He had a band called Blue Collar whose single was produced by my brother's friend Michael Butscher. Considering the connection, and my desire to find out about cool Pittsburgh bands, I bought a copy (which I still own). Thing was, Bill wasn't really a punk rocker. He was a rocker who was just fine with pure pop and wearing his Beatles influence on his sleeve. But he could hang with punks and was always willing to engage them - or a precocious teenage kid like me - in a meaningful conversation about music. He might not have dug all the crazy post-punk stuff that was happening, but he kept up with it.

He also did one thing for me which I'll always remember: He got me drunk for the first time. As in woah-I've-never-felt-this-way-before-I-am-soooooo-loopy drunk. And it happened at a radio station. Just shy of my 17th birthday.

I regularly dropped by WYEP-FM in the early '80s when it was still in the basement of a garage in South Oakland. I befriended the Friday DJ who went by the name Concrete Window (see the link to the PC story above). On one September evening, Bill was there with Conc, pouring gin and grapefruit soda drinks. My closest friends will know this combination later became known as "gin and shanleys" but which technically is called "gin and sours." I had a nip of it for the first time at a show about a year earlier, courtesy of an older punk gal that I knew. Unlike beer, which I wouldn't enjoy for another year or so, this bit of hooch was good and fruity.

Bill had a few extra cups and offered me one. Being my first real time imbibing, I put away a few of them, drinking them like pop. He and Conc later had to pour me out on the sidewalk in front of my house after the radio show was over. If I was in a bad state, I didn't feel it. I was having a good time. If my dad knew I was snockered (I think he did), he didn't give me a hard time about it. Talking too loud on the street, that was a problem though.

Well that sort of sealed the deal with me and Bill. He would later blur that story together with the time that he and Conc played Yoko Ono's "Don't Worry Kyoko" repeatedly in order to get people to pledge to WYEP, even though that happened on another night, probably several years earlier. But why nitpick?

Even though that Blue Collar 45 wasn't really punk rock, there was some serious heft to it. In particular, the B-side, "First Snows." Lyrically, it touched on the plight of working class people who were struggling to get by in those early days of Reaganomics and the crumbling steel industry. He dedicated it to Yoko and Sean Lennon, which I didn't quite understand, wondering back then if I was missing something.

In addition to sounding really pissed off in the song (maybe punk rockers were rubbing off on him) Bill's guitar playing really slashed hard. He repeatedly told me how the original version was too long for the single so Butscher deftly queued up the tape so it would skip the intro and begin where the band all kicked in. When he compiled a CD overview of his career, Bill included the uncut version, where you can get it all. The other thing I really like is that during the guitar solo, it sounds like one track of guitars is interrupted by another one, which gets more chopping and antagonistic. It should be a classic in Pittsburgh music history. I meant to dig it out when I heard the news but haven't gotten to it yet. Maybe tonight.

Thanks, Bill. Wherever you are I hope there's a guitar and maybe a hero or two of yours standing around.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Sun of Goldfinger Hits Pittsburgh

Thursday was Sun of Goldfinger day- and night - in Pittsburgh. The group consists of David Torn (guitar), Tim Berne (alto saxophone) and Ches Smith (drums, electronics). They just released an album on ECM that's credited to all three of them but titled Sun of Goldfinger. So the album title is pretty much the name of the group. For more details, check out my interview with Berne and Torn here.

On the afternoon prior to the show, the guitarist and saxophonist came to the University of Pittsburgh and held an informal chat in a recording studio on campus. I was free for the afternoon and stopped by. The night before, they had played in Madison, Wisconsin where my friend/former bandmate Grant helped present them. So when Berne saw me in the room he said, "I have a message from Grant that I'm supposed to deliver to you."

For almost two hours, the two of them took questions about their music and they expounded on things like how they approach free improvisation in general and in this group. They also played one whole track from Sun of Goldfinger (a 22-minute piece) and an excerpt from another. Berne talked a lot about studying with Julius Hemphill. Having spoken with them already, I was familiar with a lot of the topics they covered but it was cool hearing it in person and seeing their willingness to share their approaches with people.

Later that night, they played at the Spirit Lodge. Being an improvisational group, they time between setting up and starting the proper set blurred a little. Having seen Torn live a couple times, it's clear that the twisting of knobs on his sampler/effects arsenal is often part of the performance as a whole. It can be better to focus on the sound and not the visuals. The surprise came early on when I noticed that one of the sounds coming from the stage was not generated by Torn. It was Smith, who had a table with electronics that were making the noise in question. At least five, and maybe ten, minutes, went by before he picked up his sticks and started flailing. Things had been rolling along already, but his work on the kit really get it off the ground. Smith is amazing in general and would probably be just as powerful playing a solo set.

There were times during the set where Smith's electronics were too loud in the mix, definitely overpowering Berne and sometimes threatening to do the same to Torn. As a whole, though, the 60- to 70-minute set they played felt pretty mind blowing. Eventually Smith started to bang out a groove and everyone came together, only to tear things back down and rebuild.

Once during one of these instances, Berne was playing practically unaccompanied and pulled out a long line of ideas that almost sounded like something out of a Bloodcount performance. Torn tapped into some dirty blues riffs that took him back to the early days that he had mentioned at the lecture, when he used to be all about the blues. While it had traditional elements in it, the delivery made it more of a passing reference and not an attempt to push his comrades into da blooz. Smith astounding all night, playing drums with one hand while manipulating electronics with the other, playing something that sounded like a drum loop but was actually live. My last bit of chicken scratch notes from that night reads, "Funk groove?" It must have felt kind of like that. All sorts of wild stuff happened that night.

White Hole - the quartet of guitarists Dave Bernabo & Erik Cirelli, saxophonist Patrick Breiner & drummer PJ Roduta - opened the next with a set of four originals that ranged from super spare and quiet to raucous and sharp.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

CD Review: Phillip Johnston & the Coolerators - Diggin' Bones/ Phillip Johnston - The Adventures of Prince Achmed

Phillip Johnston & the Coolerators
Diggin' Bones

Phillip Johnston
The Adventures of Prince Achmed


My dad once quipped that B3 organ players put a lot of bassists out of work. A bass player himself, Pop was known for exaggerating a little bit with his stories but there was a slight element of truth there. With all those organists playing with strong left feet, they had the low end in the pocket.

Conversely, if an organ player employs a living bassist, the session in question might generates some skepticism. It makes you wonder if the organist is capable enough. Or, as one piece of lore goes, if someone doesn't trust the organist. One Pittsburgh musician talked about how skillfully Shirley Scott's leg bounced around the pedals, but that many of her albums nevertheless featured bassists. When he asked her, she it all came down to the producer insisting that the low end on Scott's recordings shouldn't be left to left foot.

Diggin' Bones, the first release by saxophonist Phillip Johnston's Australia-based group the Coolerators, finds the Microscopic Sextet figurehead leading a group that includes both an organist and bassist. But before any eyebrows go up in suspicion, there are a few things to consider. The man at the bass isn't your average four-to-the-bar joe. He's Lloyd Swanton, of Down Under's long lasting improvisation trio the Necks. A few bars into the title track and it's clear why Johnston has Swanton on the session: the bass line is not a walking line that's easy to play along with some organ chords. It moves with the alto saxophone's jumpy melody. This is not a typical horn and organ trio session.

Johnston switches between alto and soprano saxophones throughout Diggin' Bones. He specializes in catchy lines that latch onto the brain. Sometimes they come with a whimsical air, like "Frankly" which seems like it's going to break into "42nd Street" as it resolves. (This line also reappears during the other disc.) "Later" begins with a stop-start soprano line before morphing something that sounds more like legato tango. This then leads to a rubato organ breakdown, a drop-tuned bass solo and a final statement from drummer Nic Cecire. Swanton also gets some room to stretch out over some organ drones in the ska-flavored "The Revenant."

Klezmer influence shows up in some of Johnston's writing on Diggin' Bones. He's always catchy and exudes a feeling of good times. But sometimes the songs rely a bit too much on melody repetition at the expense of time that could have be spent stretching out.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed consists of music Johnston composed for the 1926 silent film of the same name, the first full-length silhouette animated film, which was created by Charlotte "Lotte" Reiniger. In addition to the composer's soprano sax, this group forgoes a bassist in favor of trombone (James Greening), two keyboardists (Alister Spence and Casey Golden) and drums (Cecire). Based on the One Thousand and One Nights collection of Middle Eastern folk tales,  the work was written as a continuous 65-minute work that, for this CD, has been banded into 12 tracks.

The blend of trombone and soprano sax immediately makes a good sonic pairing for the music, giving it an exotic blend even as they play Western-based melodies. Considering the age of the film, the voices used on the keyboards push it towards the other end of the 20th century, or maybe into the millennium. They don't sound slick but the turntable scratching noise and the occasional dirty synth groove puts modern technology at the forefront.

In a dark theater, the blend of ancient cinema techniques and modern composition must surely add to the suspense of the story. (The plot does not appear on the cover but the track titles hint at magicians, a kidnapping, witches, Aladdin's magic lamp and a battle.) Without the visuals to carry it as an album, the music varies. Johnston always keeps things moving, sometimes changing textures every few measures.  Yet, his frequent use of Philip Glass-like arpeggios or having the horns repeat one note in rhythmic variations gets to be a bit much. Often times something breaks through the repetition, like Greening mimicking a police car siren on his horn. But there were many instances where seeing the on-screen drama could have carried the music a little further.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

CD Review: Tiger Hatchery - Breathing in the Walls

Tiger Hatchery
Breathing In The Walls

One of the most intense and well-crafted sets I ever saw happened at the Oakland Beehive in December of 1991. That's a long time ago, for sure, but certain things stick in my mind all these years later. The band was UFO Or Die, a trio fronted by Yamatsuka Eye of the Boredoms. That band's drummer, Yoshimmy P-We also played in this trio. Although the band's Discogs profile doesn't mention him anywhere, I believe Railroad Jerk's bassist Tony Lee completed the lineup.

Armed with a guitar and a microphone, Eye kicked off the set with a call to arms: "U! F! O! Or! Die!" Then - wham! - they were into it. Melody had no place that night. Instead the trio delivered rhythmic blasts in groups of three, four, five or seven beats. The order and number changed a lot, and this is only an approximation. But whatever the attack called for, all three of them made it together, like clockwork.

Then, after about 12 minutes - again, an estimate - it was over. Eye put down his guitar and walked off. They had played about five "songs." And that was all they needed to do. We were satiated. Anything more would've been too much.

Those thoughts came back while listening to Breathing In the Walls, the second album on ESP by the jazz-noise trio Tiger Hatchery. Toward the end of i,t saxophonist Mike Forbes yells through his horn with an agonized sound that recalls Eye's fury. At the other end of the album, Andrew Scott Young begins the album with some distorted bass noise that sets the chaotic tone for what will come. The answer comes in a sheet of drum clatter from Ben Billington and some sax wails that may or may not resemble a theme but pulls you into an exciting adventure.

The trio is all about free blowing but they do offer some contrast throughout the set. In "Drawing Down the Moon," Forbes - whose credits list merely "sax" - switches from tenor (?) to bass sax and the trio as a whole sounds more inquisitive. Young even drop tunes as low as he can go by the end of the piece. "Breathing Down the Walls," Parts One and Two (the latter with vocalizing) stand as the ambient calm among the storms at the middle and end of the set."Triple Penny" alternates on-the-bridge string plinking with full band skronks.

The strength of Tiger Hatchery is their brevity. Much like Sun Worship, their previous ESP album, the whole thing lasts exactly 30 minutes, with most tracks coming in around the three-minute mark. They understand the need to making a strong point in a short space and get out

If fire music was the sound of the '60s, Tiger Hatchery is making scorched earth music for the current times, to rework one of their song titles.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

CD Review: Brötzmann/Leigh-Sparrow Nights

Peter Brötzmann/Heather Leigh
Sparrow Nights

In the photo spread across the gatefold of Sparrow Nights, Peter Brötzmann stands with his hands in his pockets, looking at Heather Leigh, who sits at her pedal steel guitar. He doesn't have any of his instruments within view and it's hard to tell if his eyes are focused on Leigh or her instrument. But he looks thoughtful, as if he's trying to figure how his approach to reeds could work with an instrument that's usually found in country music.

Brötzmann is known for his aggressive approach to horns, mainly on tenor saxophone but also on bass sax, clarinets and taragato. Any casual listener knows that his work can be brutal at times. But he does adapt his sound, depending on the group. I heard him a few years ago in a duet with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, and the meeting drew out some subtle lines from his partner.  Maybe it was just the subject matter but his album Never Too Late But Always Too Early, dedicated to the late bassist Peter Kowald, felt more reflective as he meditated on the loss of his friend.

Of course, Leigh is no stranger to Brötzmann. They've released three other albums of live performances. Sparrow Nights documents their first time working in a studio. She also has a unique approach to her instrument, making it drone or howl like a conventional guitar. Only when she bends the pitch does it come close to resembling a standard pedal steel.

"Summer Rain" starts the album with Brötzmann ruminating on tenor in a warm tone that points towards more traditional players of that instrument. Leigh fades in towards the end of the two-minute piece, sounding like an organ upon first entry. "This Word Love" follows, with Leigh repeating a two-note vamp, setting a mood that would fit perfectly on a label like Kranky. When Brötzmann enters, the crisp recording invites the opportunity to imagine what his embouchure might be like. (It wasn't that last time I thought about this during the album.) Although soprano sax isn't listed as one of his many instruments on Sparrow Nights, this track's horn sounds a lot like one. Notes squeeze their way out of the bell, sounding like the air narrowly escaped getting trapped on the reed in his mouth. They're rough and scratchy but make an interesting combination with Leigh's droning background.

Leigh begins alone in "It's Almost Dark," plucking out notes and creating ripples of strings. After five minutes, the niceties are gone. Brötzmann unleashes a swarm of wails from his horn and Leigh bends pitches. Rather than end on vicious blasts, they bring the mood back down, sounding pensive and just a little bit eerie.

Brötzmann switches between tenor, alto and bass saxophones, along with B-flat, bass and contra-alto clarinets, so things never get too predictable. Of the ten tracks on the disc (six on vinyl), four go on for ten minutes or more. Although things can get pretty dense, these improvisations often change shape rather than staying in one spot and attempting to blow down the walls. This becomes especially clear in "My Empty Heart," where the ambient strings and wailing clarinet reach a particular sweet spot, shimmering and wailing at the same time.

Sparrow Nights might not be easy listening but it reveals how two seemingly opposite instruments (and players) take cues from each other and how those ideas can finfluence the way they respond.

Monday, February 25, 2019

A Salute to Peter Tork, Who Tears the Top Right Off My Head

The first time I heard the Monkees' "Your Auntie Grizelda," I don't think I liked it. It didn't bother my young ears as much as Davy Jones' sappy, spoken word lyrics in "The Day We Fall In Love." In reaction to the latter song, I took a pencil, crossed out the title as best I could on the record label and wrote "BOO!" next to it. "Auntie Grizelda" got under my (approximately) seven-year old skin because of Peter Tork's goofy noises during the lead break. It felt too close to some sort of baby talk noises. It wasn't funny to me.

But different qualities float to the surface of Monkees songs as time goes on that offer a deeper appreciation. In the final verse of the song, the comedy almost makes way for melancholy. The first two verses have set up the song's title character as a comedic character, a stuffy "normal." Now, Peter Tork is warning the person in the song to break away from her, "or, just like her, you'll have to make it alone." As he sings those final words, Peter's voice always seemed to take on a sadder tone. It explained why Grizelda is so stodgy - she's lonely, and more of a tragic figure. Even in the early days, the Monkees were good for drama. Think about the way that Micky sings, "And I don't know if I'm ever coming home," in "Last Train to Clarksville." It sounds nervous, truly like a guy who doesn't want to leave his girlfriend for Viet Nam. (Years later, it was admitted that the song was about that.)

I say all this while I remember what a former co-worker once told me after reading an article of mine that explained the depth of the Monkees bubble gum music. He told me, "I don't know if I'm just missing something or if you're full of shit." It could be that I'm over analyzing their work, though I doubt it. Regardless, it seems like a good way to start a salute to Peter Tork, who died last week at the age of 77. Peter was typecast as the dumb member of the band, on both their tv show and to some extent onstage. When he finally got a song, on the second Monkees album, it was "Your Auntie Grizelda," a joke tune. Sort of. But he managed to elevate it beyond that before it was over. He did quite a bit to elevate the band's music, in fact.

One album later, on Headquarters, his talents really added to the work, when the band took artistic control of the recording sessions. His banjo fueled the drive of Mike Nesmith's "You Told Me," blending country and rock perhaps a few steps ahead of the Byrds. Tork also did the finger-picking guitar work in Nesmith's "Sunny Girlfriend" which it's author did the rhythm part.

If that weren't enough, Peter co-wrote one of the album's cornerstone songs. "For Pete's Sake" is not only catchy, built on a guitar lick with a lot of snap, it also has a strong call for love and unity. Maybe it comes off as a little more simplistic than other things that came out during the Summer of Love, but damned if the whole thing doesn't hit hard. Micky Dolenz sings the whole thing, but Peter put the words in his mouth, knowing that the drummer would leave a greater impression as he wails, "We gotta be freeeee." So effective was this song that it became the closing theme to The Monkees during the second tv season.

Peter only sang about two lines on Headquarters but they were significant. He delivers the start of the second verse of "Shades of Gray," which already sounds sad due to the somber piano intro. After Davy Jones sings the first verse in a near-whisper, Peter takes the second one, with his voice, with a bit of echo on it, almost sounding like it's about to crack. Not to forget the title line of the song, which he sings all by his vulnerable self, except during the final chorus. Not to belabor the point, but it reinforces the meaning of the song, which, perhaps in retrospect, spoke legions for what the country was going through at the time.

The next couple Monkees album shortchanged Peter. On Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., his sole contribution was "Peter Percival Patterson's Pet Pig Porky," which played into his role from the show. Instrumentally, he did contribute a lot to the songs though. But The Birds, The Bees & the Monkees has nothing by him. The CD version has a short song called "Alvin." "Tear the Top Right Off My Head" was a strong one that didn't see legit release until the late '90s. There were a few others that he recorded around that time, including the haunting "Merry Go Round." I once played that for a former bandmate, who was appalled at the keyboard-heavy, drumless song. "He's not even singing into tune!" Yeah, but This Mortal Coil should've covered it on one of their albums.

Head, the movie and album, set the record straight, with two solid Tork songs, "Can You Dig It" and "Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again." The Monkees brought the latter back into their stage show in the early 2000s, I believe it was, which I was happy to hear. If nothing else, that song, with its frantic pace and arty time signature changes during the solo, should be enough to solidify Peter's credentials.

Then he left the band. Of course, he returned, left and returned again. He also did other things, like teach high school and start a blues band, Suede Shoe Blues. He also fought a battle with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer of the head and neck. He seemed to be doing well when he went back on tour with Dolenz and Nesmith in 2014.

In the weeks prior to that tour, I got to interview Tork by phone. There wasn't a chance for me to publish an article anywhere but one doesn't turn down a chance to talk to this guy, who sounded strong and healthy. And I posted the interview on this blog in two entries: Part One and Part Two. We only had 15 minutes, so I did my best to avoid all the typical questions and cover a few things that he wouldn't normally get to talk about. Peter was gracious, serious when he needed to be and witty when it was called for. I've always hoped that there would be a chance for a follow-up, where we could pick up our previous conversations. Life had other ideas.

In closing, here's an odd story.

A couple weeks ago I had a pretty vivid dream about playing at an open stage at Pittsburgh's Club Cafe where Peter and Mike Nesmith were also on the bill. That's a weird set-up for me because I never do open mike nights. And it seems funny to think about either of them doing them as well. Like many dreams, I didn't actually see either one perform. In fact I think that provided part of the tension: Mike and I were chatting after the show, shaking our heads at the soundman who was being kind of rough with the microphones as he tried to strike the set. Rather than taking the mike out of the stand, he was yanking the cable, making the stand fall over, and smashing the valuable equipment on the stage.

It looked like I was going to get away without admitting that I missed his set, so I looked at Mike and said, "Well, I'm going to get going. It was great seeing you, Peter. Uh, WAIT, I can't believe I just called you Peter. I mean....I know which one you are. I really do...." He looked at me with the understanding face of a guy who's been in awkward situations like this before, not really believing me but trying to be polite.

On the way out, I saw Peter and told him what had happened. He laughed it off.

The next thing I knew I was on Craig Street in Oakland where I ran into my high school friend Priscilla, who as it happens was a Monkees fan too. In fact the whole dream might have transpired because she recently posted a picture on Facebook of Nesmith holding a Monkees t-shirt. But she was walking up to use a payphone, which could only mean the year in this dream was somewhere around 1988, so I didn't tell her what happened.

And that's what Peter Tork means to me. I salute you, sir. Did you know my uncle was on your show twice?

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Nellie McKay's Show at the Andy Warhol Museum

There's a lot to unload from the past week or so: Peter Tork's death; the announcement that Juke Records will be closing in a few months; a pile of records that I bought as a result of that announcement; my son getting braces; Nellie McKay's show at the Warhol last week.

I'll probably devote a whole post to Peter before long. Pittsburgh Current posted a piece I wrote opining on Juke's closing right here. If you click on it, you'll see that not just the store but the storefront has been a big part of Pittsburgh music for quite some time. So, with all due respect to my son, that leaves Nellie.

Leading up to the show, she and I talked by phone, covering a range of topics from how she wound up covering Moby Grape's "Murder In My Heart for the Judge" (her mom turned her on to it) to the activist tendencies we all have at the root of beings. (She didn't put it that way. I'm just sort of paraphrasing.) Some of those highlights can be found here.

At the theater in the Andy Warhol Museum, the performer has to enter the room through the doors in the back, the same way the audience does, which means they potentially have to run the gauntlet of fans. Or someone is likely to say, "Look, there she is!" McKay came in without fanfare but instead of being introduced, she went up to the soundboard and spoke through a mike, saying that she was Andy Warhol's mother. She then went on a long explanation that asked that patrons turn off their cellphones. Then Mama Warhol introduced the evening's entertainer and Nellie and ukuleles made their way to the stage, starting the set off with the Paul Simon-penned hit (for the Cyrkle) "Red Rubber Ball." When it came time for the key change in the final verse, she modulated with ease, like it was second nature. This strong sense of technique would factor heavily during the next 75 minutes or so.

The last time McKay played the Warhol, there were several moments during the set where she started one song and stopped before completing it. She also expressed doubt about playing something, going forward only after getting encouragement from the crowd. It could have been a shtick or maybe she was off (it was still a great show) but none of that doubt happened this time around.

McKay, alternating between the piano and the ukuleles, leaned heavily on interpretations, downplaying her own songs. But that was no easy covers set because her choices provided their own challenges. Les McCann's fired-up R&B hit "Compared to What" needs to be delivered with a punch, and Nellie used two fists for her version. She even recreated the modulation through every key that McCann did in his version. She dove into the Beatles' "If I Fell" on uke, taking it in what seemed like a pretty high register. Nevertheless, it showed the extent of her vocal range, pulling off the song without the need for a harmony partner like John and Paul did.

Among the clever moments of the night, she chose "High Anxiety," from the Mel Brooks movie of the same name. She also added a song from her upcoming stage show about Joan Rivers. The standard "Where Or When," which appears on last year's Sister Orchid album, started off with the rarely-heard verse. "A-Tisket A-Tasket" came at a pretty brisk pace, with McKay handling the lead vocals and the shout-vocals that usually come from the band. Tempos like that one never deterred McKay's piano chops,  even while she rapped in double-time.

When she welcomed requests during the encore, calls went up for "Dog Song" and "David," which almost makes you wonder how well the audience knows albums like Pretty Little Head or even her Doris Day tribute album Normal As Blueberry Pie. (Somehow "Murder In My Heart for the Judge" felt like too much of a mouthful to yell as a request.) But it seems like "Dog Song" is one of the obligatory parts of her set. The verse done in Tom Waits voice worked well because she also had the lower range for that.

Afterwards, Nellie graciously signed numerous album covers (see above) and posed for pictures, including the top shot in this entry. I handed her the Pittsburgh Current issue with her preview in it, thinking she might want to check it out. Before I could explain, she and her sharpie were signing it for me: "Keep one eye closed at all times. Lots of love, Nellie. xox." Sigh

Friday, February 08, 2019

New Things on the Stereo and Around Town

Playing right now: Bob Mould - Sunshine Rock

If this album is any indication, Bob's upcoming appearance in town (February 19) will blow away fans from all parts of his career. This album rocks hard. It's sequenced like a great live show, with very little break between songs. Dynamic shifts or variations in tempo are strategically inserted for best impact. Lotta heavy power chords, with no high-gloss sheen or phase on them. The vocals are mixed almost evenly with the guitars too, almost like those classic Mission of Burma records. Luckily there's a lyric sheet that comes along with the record.

Why, oh why didn't I request to have off on the 19th? That's the same night Ben Opie is playing a set of Ornette Coleman songs at Alphabet City too. Someone could play their cards right and see both shows.

And speaking of Ben Opie....

That's him on the left, sort of in the shadow, Dave Throckmorton on drums and Tony DePaolis on bass. Tony was filling in for Paul Thompson, so technically the group was not the Thoth Trio. But they kicked off a new weekly series at a brand new establishment in the Strip District called Kingfly Spirits. This series, curated by Ben, will pick up where Space Exchange left off. That was the weekly Tuesday series at the Thunderbird Cafe, up the road in Lawrenceville, which closed for remodeling a few years ago but appears to be ready to reopen in the next month or so.

Stop me if I've told you this before. But Space Exchange was a great gathering place for musicians and listeners. Sometimes the music was straightahead, right out of the book of Monk or featuring an organ trio. Sometimes it took a world music turn or went right into minimalist experimental noise. Maybe it wasn't always what you were in the mood for, but with no cover, a great bartender and a chance to catch up on what was happening in a variety of scenes....I don't know, I'd like to imagine it as being like the city's version of the Knitting Factory, a Venn diagram of musicians coming together.

So now Kingfly is doing it on Thursdays. Next week, Patrick Breiner (who has played in Battle Trance) is playing with a quartet. The following Thursday, Jeff Berman is there with his group BLINK, with Tom Wendt playing the last Thursday in February. The venue is really big and vast, with a bar toward the front and an area in the back for the band. Acoustic were good. Other than a few patrons who had no regard for the band playing mere feet from them (but who thankfully either left or moved after the second song), the audience grew as the evening progressed and they were into it. In fact, I think it was during one of Tony's bass solos, it felt like the whole building fell silent.