Thursday, July 09, 2020

CD Review: Rudresh Mahanthappa - Hero Trio

Rudresh Mahanthappa
Hero Trio

After collaborations with the late Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, bop saxophonist Bunky Green and his peer of staggering technique Stephen Lehman, all of which preceded his Bird Calls album that recast Charlie Parker in a modern light, not to mention his work with the intense Indo-Pak Coalition, the last thing one might expect the alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is a cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" that isn't ironic or irreverent in any way. But there it is, track number 6 on Hero Trio.

Mahanthappa explains in the liner notes that he first saw both Johnny Cash and Stevie Wonder (also covered here) on Sesame Street as a kid: "They have played such a strong role in helping me to look beyond the illusory boundaries of genre towards seeing music as a magical force that binds humanity." A post of mine from several years ago, covering similar thoughts about one of those people made a similar point wholeheartedly. So - amen, Mr. M.

However, "Ring of Fire" comes as a bit of digression of the path of Hero Trio, an album of covers that leans heavily towards Charlie Parker, as well as Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett. With Rudy Royston (drums) and François Moutin (bass), Mahanthappa pays tribute but takes the music down his own path. The focus becomes evident in the opening seconds of the album, when the saxophonist starts to pop off the buoyant melody of Parker's "Red Cross" but suspends the movement in bar two, getting Moutin to bear down on the root and stay there. They eventually get to the "mop-mop" hook of the tune but it comes more than a minute later and they take an back road route to get there. Moutin does similar pedal work in "I Can't Get Started," which adds a darker mood that seems even more disconnected when the melody shows up.

Mahanthappa enjoys playing with time in ways that might not hit on the conscious level right away. "Ring of Fire" has an extra beat added in an early phrase, giving the melody a chance to stretch a little, almost as if it's going to get behind itself, which of course it never does. Wonder's "Overjoyed" turns into a taut 7/4 vamp that the rhythm section dives into. The trio also blends Parker's "Barbados" with John Coltrane's "26-2," which itself was based on a Bird tune.

All the name dropping would point towards little more than a good record collection if the trio didn't deliver with such intensity, happy not with an homage but dead set on exploring new possibilities within the music. Someone once said that Charlie Parker was such an artist that he could change his mind three times about what to play over some changes even before he got to that part of a chorus (I feel like I might have used that nugget somewhere else recently). It wouldn't come as a surprise if Rudresh Mahanthappa can do the same thing now, spinning melodies with speed and clarity, which seem to evolve kaleidoscopically as he does. His partners play on a similar level with him. Moutin plays his instrument with ferocity and Royston swings hard even when he holds back.

The insert photo of the trio dressed in superhero costumes comes out off like a hoot after hearing the music. This is serious stuff and they still have the desire ham it up when all is said and done. Does that make them heroes?

A hero ain't nothing but a sandwich, to borrow a title of a '70s film.

But these guys are really good.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

CD Review: The MacroQuarktet - The Complete Night: Live at the Stone NYC

The MacroQuarktet
The Complete Night: Live at the Stone NYC
(Out Of Your Head)

I recently unearthed a copy of Discourse, the zine I sporadically published in the late '80s/early '90s. While it predominantly covered independent rock, the Spring 1990 issue had an interview with Tim Berne, which I lined up after calling New York directory assistant to find his number. During our talk Berne mentioned the moment on "Evolution of a Pearl," (on his then-current Fractured Fairy Tales album) when trumpeter Herb Robertson emitted a noise through his horn that sounded a little like a laugh and little like a moan of pain. "He just did that and we almost fell out. Hank [Roberts, cello] missed some entrance 'cause he was freaked out," Berne said. This might be the reason Robertson is credited as playing laryngel crowbar, in addition to trumpet and cornet, on the album.

The memory of that track came by while listening to The Complete Night, Live at the Stone NYC. Robertson and Dave Ballou are all about extended technique during the performances that make up this album. They played two sets there in June 2007 with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey. Nothing was planned, everything was fair game and everyone plays with a lack of inhibition. Sometimes that results in some extremely abrasive high-pitched brass noise. At one point, Rainey toys with his hi-hat cymbal so it creates the scrape of metal on metal. There are also moment of heavy breathing through the horns and low guttural growls that sound like one of the horns is waking up after a long night of boozing.

The Complete Night isn't for casual listening. During one spin of  the first disc, Robertson and Ballou's hijinks burrowed deep under my skin and felt really annoying. Upon further investigation, perhaps knowing what was coming, a flow to the set became noticeable. The quartet works with dynamics and sonic attacks to make sure nothing - even the crazy technique - doesn't get overused. Plus there are moments when dynamics shift and oddball things surface, like an instrument that sounds like a guitar, minus the sound of fingers or a pick striking the strings. Along with the lack of being able to clearly tell Ballou from Robertson (though there are some clues), moments like this compel rather than repel deep listening.

The first disc of this set (the wilder one with the phantom instrument) was originally released in Europe in 2008 as Each Part A Whole on Ruby Flower. (That disc credits Robertson with electric megaphone, which could account for the phantom guitar noise, providing it's not Ballou's plastic hose.) The second disc is making its debut, and it includes some of the strongest moments of the whole set. After playfully dueling with one another, Ballou and Robertson come together with a long tone theme at one point, proving how attentive they are to each other's approaches. The space during the middle of the set recalls some open moments in AACM performances. Later, their chattering horns stop for a smooth transition into Gress' bowed bass. By the second set, the MacroQuarktet was a well-oiled machine. It's now hard to imagine hearing one disc without the other.

Although both sets each consist of a continuous performance, the discs break them up into bands, with titles that give a further look into the wit behind the music. Volume One features "Neuroplasticity" (in three parts), "Ducks & Geese...Or Rabbits" (in four parts, which might actually be an appropriate title) and "Basal D. Ganglia" (in three parts). Volume Two features only two different titles: "Crossing the Threshold)" (which covers five tracks) and "No Planet B" (two parts).  Following the breaks between tracks proves to be too much of a distraction while listening. Better to just imagine being at the old Stone for this evening, getting absorbed by the music.

Monday, June 22, 2020

CD Review: Tim Berne & Nasheet Waits - The Coandă Effect / James Brandon Lewis/ Chad Taylor - Live in Willisau

Tim Berne & Nasheet Waits
The Coandă Effect

Although 2020 is going on record as one of the worst years ever (at least in my lifetime), Tim Berne is having a good year, artistically speaking. During the Covid 19 pandemic, he has managed to drop several new albums and remastered one from the '90s. Those release came after some activity in the early part of the year when his group Snake Oil moved from ECM to Intakt and released The Fantastic Mrs. 10. That disc features some of the best group interaction and writing that Berne has released in quite some time. Along with a solo alto disc, Sacred Vowels, he also released The Coandă Effect during the spring. Like Mrs. 10, it captures him in a fully inspired clip, with a drummer that many might not expect to be on Berne's shortlist of collaborators.

Nasheet Waits' resume includes a few albums as a leader and numerous other sessions with other musicians. Probably best known for his tenure in Jason Moran's trio, he has also worked with the late Andrew Hill, the group Tarbaby and Christian McBride. Ergo, he might not seem like a player Berne would work with, but his wide-ranging experiences make him an ideal fit. 

The Coandă Effect was recorded live last October at Brooklyn's Sultan Room and consists of two tracks: the 39-minute "Tensile" and the nearly 10-minute "5see." The former feels like a suite, with Berne introducing some melodic themes that he methodically pushes into various shapes. Waits helps build up the excitement behind him, working all over his kit and helping to direct the music into those multiple directions. Both players listen attentively to each other, reacting to and spurring each other on. Things get propelled constantly, with neither sounding like they needed to stop and consider where to go. They're on their way forward the whole time. When they come back down on the theme at the end, the dynamic drop feels as exciting as the freer moments. 

"5see" begins as more of a sound sculpture moving into a more grounded series of alto ideas, with Waits on brushes. Before it's over, the drummer coaxes Berne to build up the dynamics yet again. 

James Brandon Lewis & Chad Taylor
Live in Willisau

With a great deal of humility, I have to say I'm a little late to the James Brandon Lewis party, having heard good things about the tenor player but not getting around to his music yet. Live at Willisau, recorded just a month earlier than The Coandă Effect at Switzerland's Jazz Festival Willisau, gives several indications of what I've been missing and why it's time to catch up. Lewis and drummer Chad Taylor engage in some deep discussions, which even seems so bowl over the saxophonist himself, if his between-song talk offers any indication.

Their 67-minute set almost comes off like a dissertation on all the elements that make modern jazz so vital to players that want to push it forward. In addition to several original compositions, they interpret Duke Ellington ("Come Sunday"), Mal Waldron ("Watakushi No Sekai") and Dewey Redman ("Willisee"), the latter a piece that Redman played with drummer Ed Blackwell on the same stage in 1980.

Then there's the rapport between these too, which is the real selling power of Live in Willisau. Lewis tears into the music with focus and enthusiasm, building "Twenty-Four" on a simple riff which he continuously states and reshapes. The piece references John Coltrane but the clipped line also feels like a fragment of Roland Kirk's "No Tonic Pres" although could be due more to Lewis' rapid delivery that recalls Kirk's opening salvo from Rip, Rig and Panic. Either way, it's the perfect thing to yank you into this set and never stop listening.

Taylor works freely over his kit on this piece and during the whole album. But there are times when he also turns a corner and gets some grooves going while Lewis continues down his solo path. These shifts elevates the music further. When he switches to mbira, it brings out the delicate beauty of "Come Sunday," as it also does in the original "With Sorrow Lonnie."

Normally, I'd post links to the labels that have released these albums. This time I opted to post links to Bandcamp since many people are doing their music shopping there, and it's also a way to preview music. Go there and check out both of these duo sets. Also, I just reviewed the Chad Taylor Trio's The Daily Biological for JazzTimes. That review can be found here.

Friday, June 19, 2020


I spent the early part of June thinking a lot and writing a big article for JazzTimes about ESP-Disk'. In a way, it was six months in the making because I did my first interview for it back in January. For four months, I just thought about it, without really picking up until May. At that point, I conducted some follow up and support interviews and started writing. When I have an opening scene/paragraph in my head, I'm set. So I dug in and, in a remarkable display of organization, I turned the piece in the weekend before it was due.

Considering the state of the world lately and how screwed up things are, and the lack of strong leadership anywhere, it's been hard to get much done. So I was happy to finish that. It was a rare situation where I forced myself to write long - go over my word count - and pare it down over the course of several days later. Even with a 2500 word count, I still find things that I would like to include but can't. Having those extra days helped you come to the conclusion of what is really needed and what can be left out.

Somewhere along the way of writing that article, I decided to skim the comments left on this blog. It used be that I would get an email whenever there was a reply posted. Not anymore. So I totally missed the comment that appeared at the end of last October's post about buying an original copy of Erica Pomerance's ESP album which came from......... ERICA HERSELF!! (Fanboy warning.) I realize there were some things in the post that might leave her miffed but hopefully you can tell that I was over the moon when I got the record. But the fact that she would find me, read the piece and comment....I felt so flattered.

Correction: I felt like a dope that it took me two freakin' months to see it. (She commented at the end of March.) By that time she was probably long gone and she's probably forgotten about me. Oh well, she knows I'm out here.

Then, just when there seemed like there might be a break in the dark mental clouds, at least for a moment, a tree fell down in our yard Tuesday night. I came home from work and Jen and Donovan were watching Some Like It Hot. I had a little something to eat and eventually joined them in front of the t.v. (I have never seen the film all the way through.) At first I thought some animal was running across our roof, which happens occasionally since our roof abuts the neighbor's yard. But the sound kept going and all of a sudden there was a loud crash. I was worried for a second that the big dead tree had fallen into our house. But what happened was a tree in our neighbor's yard had fallen across our yard, taking out our tool shed in the process. Just what you want to hear at 11:45 at night.

The good news is there was no major damage and no one was hurt. The bad news is, it was just hard to deal with yet another thing weighing on my mine. And the idea that there is something else in nature that could mess up our house (besides rain and the slim chance that critters might get in). It's an irrational feeling I get, but it's a feeling that can be hard to shake.

Thankfully, the tree is gone now. The day after it happened - the first of my two days off this week - I got a tree guy out to look at it, Then he had his crew get rid of it yesterday. They did pretty quick work of it, truth be told. Now I just need to get the shed out of there. But I had a guy come out and take a look today.

This was going to be a short intro to a review, but I think the review will just come later.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

CD Review: Nina Simone - Fodder On My Wings

Nina Simone
Fodder On My Wings

Only Nina Simone could take a song as maudlin as Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" and rework it to explain her troubled relationship with her recently deceased father. Accompanying herself on piano, Simone's new lyrics spin a confession that arguably ranks with John Lennon's "Mother," laying everything out candidly. The difference is Lennon faded out of his song screaming, never finding peace. Simone, on the other hand, reaches closure 

Early verses confess how she "despised this man" who she is "glad to say, he's dying at last," after years of resentment. With classical flourishes dropped in between verses, a synthesizer swell appears midway through, acting almost like a cinematic cue for redemption. In the final verse, she admits that "I loved him them and I loved him now," and how his passing broke her. Parental bonds can do that to a person, no matter how fractured the relationship.

The centerpiece on the reissue of an obscure Simone album from 1982, "Alone Again (Naturally)" didn't even appear on Fodder On My Wings when it was initially released in France. It and two other tracks were added to a few reissues in the late '80s and early '00s, and they are here on Verve's new edition. The album was made while Simone was living in Paris, her mental illness getting worse while, at the same time, she was feeling artistically inspired by African musicians she met in her new country. 

This duality can be felt throughout the album. Opening track "I Sing Just to Know That I'm Alive" sounds empowering, especially with the African vibe of the band. In "Liberian Calypso" she sings about going to a club and dancing to American music, all done over the melody of Louis Jordan's "Run Joe," which is clear when the shout chorus comes around.

But her darkness is always at arm's length. "I Sing" is followed by "Fodder In Her Wings," from which the album's variation on the title comes. A song that Simone recorded several times, it puts all of her despair front and center, as beautiful as it is melancholic. "I Was Just A Stupid Dog To Them" has an Afro-Latin groove, complete with slapped bass, but the message is clear her too. It even has some Cecil Taylor-esque fills underneath for extra emphasis.

But even if she wasn't in the best frame of mind, Simone still sounds like she's enjoying herself. The brief "Color Is a Beautiful Thing" reveals a humorous streak. "Vous Etes Seuls, Mais Je Désire Etre Avec Vous" could have been a bit shorter, but the chorus of voices offers some healing, as does "Le Peuple En Suisse," which is bolstered by some organ swells and trumpet blasts. "Heaven Belongs To You," which she introduces as an African song her father sang to her, is another repetitive song with an infectious groove. 

Throughout the album, Simone's voice often sounds rough, especially on the sustained notes, but the rawness does nothing to impact her delivery. In fact, it helps. Throughout her life, Simone was an artist with many layers and Fodder On My Wings adds to that fascinating complexity.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

CD & DL Review: Threadbare (Jason Stein/ Ben Cruz/ Emerson Hunton) - Silver Dollar & Greg Ward/Jason Stein/ Marcus Evans/ Chad Taylor/ Matt Lux - 85 Bears

Though, at this point, we're all still pretty much under quarantine, a number of albums are still being released. In fact, several musicians will have multiple albums hit the street in 2020, in some fashion. Matthew Shipp is one of them, which reminds me - my review of his latest album, Piano Equation, is up on JazzTimes' website, and can be found right here.

Add Jason Stein to that list. The bass clarinet maestro has two new releases with two vastly different projects, both destined to raise intrigued eyebrows due to their musical and, perhaps, physical formats. 

Threadbare (Jason Stein/Ben Cruz/ Emerson Hunton)
Silver Dollar

Threadbare finds Stein putting his musical head together with guitarist Ben Cruz and drummer Emerson Hunton. The latter two are Oberlin graduates who have jazz pedigrees but they also play in the indie rock band Moontype. Together with Stein, they create something that sits at the crossroads of adventurous jazz and post-rock. To be specific, they evoke a version of the Dirty Three, with Warren Ellis' violin switched out for Stein's bass clarinet. Much like that Australian group, this trio doesn't always seem in a rush to move at full throttle, preferring a languid opening in a piece like "Threadbare 02" before reaching a shambolic climax.

Cruz strums an unsyncopated rhythm in the intro of  "70 Degrees and Counting Down," with Hunton bashing behind him, unsure whether to keep the tempo or break loose. But while the Dirty Three use elongated time and dynamics to make their points, Threadbare draws on both their technical skills and indie rock candor to take this music places. This track in particular rises in waves, only to pause and start again at a lower volume.

While Cruz could have coasted on his chordal playing, he also peels off some strong leads, recalling Ask the Ages-era Sonny Sharrock during a distorted break in "Funny Thing Is." "Untitled" also shows off his melodic skills. Hunton's inventive playing offers a strong future that could find him amazing free jazz or rock. Hopefully both.

The album's heaviest moment comes in "Silver Dollar," where Stein and Cruz create a long sustained low drone, with Hunton stoking the waves that crash against them. The piece has harmonic variety to it even as they create a fierce noise. Rather than just savage squalling, Stein's overtones give it dimension even as it threatens to make the whole thing melt. Cruz adds some upper register chordal variety to make it sound fuller. Not satisfied to blow listeners ears, the trio brings it down to a calm level to close it.

All the tracks on Silver Dollar were written by either Cruz or Hunton, with one a collaboration. The trio's wide ranging sound could sound right at home in an edgy jazz club or they could fit right in at a primitive DIY space with a few indie rock bands.

Greg Ward/Jason Stein/Marcus Evans/ Chad Taylor/ Matt Lux

Following last year's excellent album/band Nature Work, Stein and alto saxophonist Greg Ward come  together with some friends for something much looser. The order of the day is free blowing and the overarching theme, for lack of a better word, gets its power from the 1985 roster of the Chicago Bears. All 11 tracks are named for a member of that Super Bowl XX-winning team.

Bassist Matt Lux and drummer Marcus Evans play on the majority of the tracks, though Chad Taylor occupies the drum stool on three. Evans interacts well with the horn players, occasionally playing in duet form. On the opening "Lament for Sweetness," though, his switches to electronics for a 59-second sound puzzle with Ward. Throughout, Stein and Ward bounce ideas off one another, blowing long tones or running parallel. (Maybe they are evoking football players after all.) Lux often acts as more a support player, adding shape to things.

The biggest surprise comes with Taylor's performances on "Wilbur," "Gault" and "Suhey." He overdubbed his parts two years after the initial tracks were laid down. But you would never know consider the way his feisty rim work on "Wilbur" blends so well with Ward and Stein. He and Lux sound right at home behind the bass clarinetist in "Gault."  These concise tracks have a direction that isn't always felt throughout the rest of the album. However there are many points where things congeal and with the longest track coming in at seven minutes, the scene changes before things get too aimless.

The label ears&eyes typically releases albums on CD but 85bears is being sold as either a download (hence the Bandcamp link above) or, for those still missing the '90s, on cassette. Hearing it on tape might make the starts and endings of different tracks hard to detect, but in some ways, that's part of the fun of it, I suppose.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

CD Review: Dayna Stephens Trio - Liberty

Dayna Stephens Trio
(Contagious Music)

Maybe it's my ears, but between "Ran" and "Faith Leap," the first two tracks on Liberty, Eric Harland's drum sound changes. On "Ran" his snare drum cracks and rolls the way one might expect from a recording made at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder studios, where this album was made. "Faith Leap" is built on a straight 4/4 beat and the snare has a dry sound, like one that could be sampled from, or for, a more contemporary pop/R&B song. It fits perfectly into the track, though, guiding Ben Street's understated, funky bass line and leader/saxophonist Dana Stephens' highly melodic lines which say a lot without rushing.

Harland returns to a crisp snare crack for "Kwooked Stweet," a contrafact of John Coltrane's "Straight Street" with a theme that lives up to its bent title. Then two tracks later, "The Lost and Found" takes the tempo down slow and Stephens switches from tenor (which he plays on the majority of the album) to baritone, and that dry, spare snare sound returns. Originally appearing on Stephens' debut album, The Timeless Now, it features the saxophonist and Street harmonizing on the melody together rather than working as soloist and accompanist.

These are some of the more minute things that come while examining Liberty at close range (and on different sound systems, for what that's worth). There is plenty to dig into on a more immediate level with the trio's performance as well. Stephens writes bright, ear-tugging melodies that generate some strong, infectious group interplay. The lack of a chordal instrument opens up the space and each player takes the opportunity to branch out, not necessarily with complexity but with dynamics and accents. 

The effects can be liberating, to borrow from the album. "Loosy Goosy" is built on "rhythm changes," but doesn't betray that melodic source when the trio digs into them, even when Stephens and Harland trade some heavy fours. "Tarifa" has Stephens on alto (double-tracked in the theme) for a rhythmic folk melody inspired by the titular locale, on the edge of Spain, just miles from Morocco. While bass and drums vamp, Stephens plays over them, going in several directions which all manage to lock in with his bandmates.

Saxophone trios might not be as common as, say, a piano trio with a horn. But the setting usually brings out a keen awareness in players about how space can be filled or left open. One JD Allen performance made me think he was combining funk and Coltrane. Years ago Sonny Rollins set a gold standard on albums like Way Out West, while Ornette Coleman charted a completely different path in his trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffatt, making close listening paramount to a where the whole composition might go.

Dana Stephens is no newcomer to this music. Liberty is his ninth album as a leader. But at this point in his career, which was sidelined for some time due to a rare kidney disease, his playing reveals greater maturity and depth. In other words, he knows all about Liberty.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

DL Review: Steve Lehman - Xenakis & the Valedictorian / Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd - InWhatStrumentals

When the coronavirus pandemic kicked into high gear, Pi Recordings responded proactively with a musical series entitled This Is Now: Love In the Time of COVID. The label is producing special digital-only releases, with the proceeds going to people hit hard by the pandemic. Two have come out so far, with more promised in the near future.

Steve Lehman
Xenakis and the Valedictorian

Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman was balancing a remote teaching position at California Institute of the Arts with the homeschooling of his two children in March of this year. When he realized the quarantine was going to preclude celebrating his mother's 80th birthday with her, he sent her a few short recordings of his daily saxophone practices - recorded in the passenger seat of his 2011 Honda CR-V. They became the tracks for his new EP.

Far from a lo-fi set of practice tunes, Xenakis and the Valedictorian is a ten-minute/ten track series of blasts that reaffirms Lehman's reputation as an innovator. He swears in the Bandcamp description that these tracks weren't doctored with effects. If that's true, he did a fine job of imagining what his horn would sound like if it were run through a flanger ("808s") or a vintage digital delay pedal with the pitch manipulation ("Formant vs. Formant"). Each brief track flows into one another, extended technique quickly getting shoved out of the way by tart blowing, and percussive pad smacking sharing space with the sound of air flow. Consider this a modern take of For Alto, created in a time where brevity is de rigeur and still allows a musician to make a strong statement. 

And happy belated birthday to Mrs. Lehman. (If I got your surname wrong, I apologize.) 

Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd

Pianist Vijay Iyer and poet-producer Mike Ladd released In What Language in 2003, capturing the mood of the post-9/11 world where discrimination and scapegoating were in full effect for Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs and other non-whites. This new release takes the instrumental tracks from the album and presents them in some ways as meditations that reflect on both the current malaise and what the world looked like 17 years ago. 

Without words to drive the music, the instrumental set emphasizes the way Iyer arranged sharp contrast between tracks, in terms of mood and instrumentation. Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto saxophone) and Dana Leong (trombone as well as cello) create an often dreamy ambiance, while Iyer alternates acoustic piano and electronic keyboards, with Ladd also playing the latter. His longtime collaborator, bassist Stephan Crump, lays down grooves with drummer Trevor Holder that allow Iyer to play contrasting time signatures ("Rentals") or sprint over the piano keys like Cecil Taylor ("Iraqi Businessman"). As instrumentals the music still offers plenty to take in and contemplate. 

Proceeds from Lehman's album will help musicians in need while those from Iyer and Ladd's album will support immigrant groups and commnunities disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

CD Review: Lina Allemano's Ohrenschmaus -Rats and Mice/ Lina Allemano - Glimmer Glammer

There are several things I would like to write about now, and I thought about grouping them together thematically, rather than by artist. A review of a few solo instrument albums occurred to me. Lina Allemano's solo trumpet disc seemed like the perfect thing to combine with solo albums by saxophonists Steve Lehman and Tim Berne. But I haven't gotten Berne's album yet. His album with Nasheet Waits has only gotten one play so I still want to dig into that, which reinforced the idea of keeping the artists together. Plus Lehman's mini release was quickly followed by another online Pi release by Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd, making the artist and label combinations seem like the way to go. Which brings us to.......

Lina Allemano's Ohrenschmaus
Rats and Mice 

Lina Allemano
Glimmer Glammer

Trumpeter Lina Allemano splits her time between Toronto and Berlin, where she leads a number of groups. Two of them have even made it to Pittsburgh - the thoughtful wild bop of the Lina Allemano Four and the free and raucous Titanium Riot. Based in Berlin, Ohrenschmaus (German for "ear candy") finds her in the company of Norwegian bassist Dan Peter Sundland and German drummer Michael Griener. 

If one were to construct a Venn diagram of Allemano's work, Ohrenschmaus would likely fit in the gray area between her quartet and Titanium Riot. This trio has the frenzy of the latter - in fact the album begins with Allemano emitting some guttural blasts while Griener sounds like he's tinkering in a metal shop. They're also just as likely to settle into a bit more structure, sometimes rubato and sometimes freely but always in a manner where they work in tandem with one another.

Sunderland is credited with electric bass, and several tracks feature him with bow in hand. It infers that he either alternates between the bass guitar and upright, or that his pizzicato work replicates the sounds of bass guitar strings on a fretboard. (A quick Google image search found shots of him playing a hollow body bass guitar, bow in hand so maybe I'm wrong on both guesses.) His seering bow work blends perfectly with Allemano's breathy technique in "Rats, Mice and Everything Nice." In "Ostsee," Sundland and Griener make a rigid 5/8 vamp feel groovy before they toss things into free territory. Griener, who accentuates his kit with metallic artillery, adds color and visceral force to the trio. 

The contributions of the two players gives Allemano the chance to draw on her full range of techniques. After the moments during the first half that evoke a scaled down Art Ensemble, "Grüner Schmaus" begins with a crisp, clean line that almost ventures into straightahead territory. Of course it doesn't, but she uses the rhythm section's groove to great advantage. As good as the trio is with the improvisation, Allemano gives the tracks composed lines that bring the ideal amount of cohesion to the freedom, and adding some forward direction.

For Glimmer Glammer, Allemano goes it alone, with just her trumpet and a few resonating devices to bend the sound of her horn. Solo horn albums, as interesting as they are (at least to these ears). can often be more like a series of improvisations each designed to show off different extended techniques rather than act like a solo recital of compositions, spontaneous or otherwise. While Glimmer Glammer does show off some bold technical ideas, it's not chops on display. These are fully developed pieces. In "Portrait of Sticks" she continually returns from improvisations that utlize the range back to a melody that combines bop with a brighter version of "Taps." It sustains itself for all eight minutes, never slowing down.

The multiphonics of "Clamour" come next, with Allemano providing a dead-on imitation of a guitar run through a pedalboard of effects. Through the use of circular breathing, her instrument never even sounds like a trumpet until the final second, when she comes up for air. Things get even more abstract in the title track, with staccato notes breaking through sounds that she produces in her left hand, crumpling paper or something similar.

Allemano was motivated to create the solo album in part due to the 2019 death of her friend and collaborator Justin Haynes. The album closes with a piece dedicated to him, "One Man Down." In it, Allemano deftly alternates between open bell and mute, sliding from one to another in an emotionally direct but extremely dramatic melody. Bookended by lengthy pauses, she glides into to more bottom-end growls, which makes the whole track encapsulate the moods of loss, from reflective to melancholic to distraught. It's a dramatic end to the album and also presents all of Allemano's skills as a player on display.

Monday, May 04, 2020

RIP Richie Cole

The past Saturday afternoon, I was on my break at work, scrolling through the usual media traps on my phone when I saw it. Pittsburgh bassist Mark Perna posted that Richie Cole, the world-renowned alto saxophonist and Pittsburgh resident for about seven years, had passed away. The loss felt really personal.

His family has said Cole died of natural causes. But having spent the early part of that morning reading about a musician friend who is dealing with Covid-19 (even after having tested negative for it) and thinking about another musician friend who is sidelined with something similar, it's hard to wrap my head around Cole not being on the planet anymore. That feeling comes in large part because he was so full of wild energy.

After having heard that he was living in town, I finally met him in 2016. He was tearing it up with a quartet at a bar in Carnegie, PA that didn't look like it was a place to hear jazz. (It looked more like a place where you'd go to watch football.) Yet, there he was blowing through standards like nobody I had ever heard outside of Phil Woods, who had been a mentor and teacher to Cole when he was growing up. And Woods had passed away a year before that, so it really appeared that Richie was the heir apparent to that throne. He was the last of a generation of alto players that came up following the bebop era that could still find a wealth of ideas in those classics. There are great alto saxophonists out there but Cole was the kind that made you hit the bar and yell, "Goddam!" when he cut loose.

Cole was a ham too. That first night I met him, he invited a few younger guys to sit in with him. One asked Cole if he knew "Blue Bossa," trumpeter Kenny Dorham's merging of bossa nova and hard bop, and a song that often gets trotted out at jam sessions. "I hate that song," Cole said, gruffly. There might have been an expletive in there too, but I can't quite recall. A few days later when we reconvened at the bar for a formal talk, he told the bartender, "There's an interview going on. Don't get to yappy."

But he had a way of blurring the line between jokes and seriousness, schmaltz and quality music. He arranged a version of the Frankie Avalon hit "Venus" that started out sounding like "Poinciana" and made you realize that the former song was pretty catchy after all. He quoted "The Candy Man" in the middle of "Pure Imagination," another song that came from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. When he started to solo, watch out. There was not clowning going on then.

While the mention of Buddy Rich gets many people thinking about his flashy solos or the controversial tapes recorded stealthily on his tour bus - in which the tough drummer berated the players in his band - Cole had nothing but good things to tell me about Rich. "Buddy used to say, ‘The bus leaves at 12:00, and I don’t mean 12:01.’ He only asked you to be on time and do your job. That’s why Buddy and I got along great. I did my job. I minded my own business and I treated him with the respect that he deserved."

The last time I saw Cole was last summer. He attended an event at the cemetery where my wife worked, checking out a performance by local puppeteer Dave English. The saxophonist was walking with a cane but there was still plenty of fire in him. I had heard earlier this year, pre-pandemic, about a recording that might be involving him. Now I won't get a chance to ask him about that or anything else that's going on, or bond over our mutual wearing of berets

This isn't a proper obit or bio of his work. If you want more details on his life, JazzTimes just posted a real obituary for him which you can find here. At the bottom, there's a link to my feature on him for the magazine.

But I felt that I needed to pay homage to Richie. It's not often that a jazz musician who has already established himself suddenly settles down in Pittsburgh. It was quite a coup. And I think we did something for him. He called Pittsburgh "my own Shangri-La." He also hooked with a number of players who helped him put together his Alto Madness Orchestra, which exemplified Cole's sharp arranging skills, something he considered a bigger priority than playing alto. With the help of the aforementioned Perna, and a cast of players, Cole added to his already-massive discography while living in town. The guy was full of ideas.

So in closing, I'll leave you with the one thing he told me that really summed him up. For once, I don't have to edit this for word count: “I don't play the saxophone. I sing the saxophone. I blow the saxophone as a vocalist. I tell a story. ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ does not have a trumpet solo, a piano solo and a bass solo. It would ruin the whole thing. It’s a story – a short story. You want a novel, listen to John Coltrane! And that’s good too, man!”

Thanks, Richie.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

CD Review: Lisa Mezzacappa Six - Cosmicomics

Lisa Mezzacappa Six
(Queen Bee)

This isn't the first time bassist Lisa Mezzacappa has found musical inspiration from literature. Her 2017 album avantNOIR was inspired by crime fiction novels, which resulted in some adventurous film noir jazz. The bassist wrote the music for Cosmicomics after immersing herself in the late Italo Calvino's Cosmicomic series. These stories about the origins of universe, and the way humans deal with both big and small ideas and our place within them, offered a situation comparable to the way musicians interact in an improvisational setting. Once again the muse has helped Mezzacappa create some unique pieces that are rich in detail.

With one exception, the Mezzacappa Six features the same musicians as the 2017 album. The bassist has Aaron Bennett (tenor saxophone), John Finkbeiner (guitar), Tim Perkins (electronics), and Jordan Glenn (drums) with her. Mark Clifford plays vibes, an instrument played previously by William Winant. That instrumentation allows the group to bounce from a moody lounge scene (thanks to sustained vibes) to something that gets a little more choppy, which happens out of the gate in "The Soft Moon."

Finkbeiner and Clifford often work together to create the melodic center of a theme while the rest of the group builds a foundation around them. "Crystals" begins with Mezzacappa viciously plucking the bass while Clifford moves parallel to her.  When she moves into a walking line, then things really open up.  Before they conclude - stopping cold, more accurately - Bennett adds a feverish solo of wails and overtones with some interjections from the vibes, until things calm down. For three tracks titled "Signs," Mezzacappa involves the group in conducted improvisations. Two of them build on bowed bass melodies, one with minimal drum commentary, the other with the group reacting to her overtones. Glenn and Clifford get most of the space in "Signs III" - the vibist reprising a three-note line from "Signs I" which recalls Black Sabbath's title tune - before everyone joins the short conversation.

With a strong source of material and imaginative players, there is only one set back on Cosmiccomics - Perkins' electronics. In "Sun Moon" it adds a free percussive quality, almost like an arhytmical guitar. In the final "Blood, Sea" he creates some whirring over the rubato opening which feels like the band is ready for a dramatic lift-off.  But during other tracks, Perkins generates sounds that feel kind of similar to one another, chattering noises like angry birds and distract from the fire the rest of the band is creating. The most frustrating one comes in "All At One Point" where a mutant blend of R2D2 and Moog-style bloops start to get in the way. It's not that they spoil the music but the limited sound elements distract from, rather than elevate, moments like this.

Nevertheless, the group cooks. Other things to listen for are the ways the rhythm section takes a simple melodic structure and twists it over shifting tempos, while Finkbeiner, Clifford or Bennett tear it up on top. Like a good story, a lot happens here so it's best to dig in and get to know these.. characters.

Incidentally, Mezzacappa is currently active in trying to help musicians and performance spaces in the Bay Area, which have fallen on hard times due to the pandemic. In adddition to checking out her music, check out her Facebook page or things like this that are trying to help the Center for New Music.

Friday, April 24, 2020

CD Review: Paul Bryan - Cri$el Gems

Paul Bryan
Cri$el Gems

Paul Bryan is the kind of musician who gets around. A Grammy Award-winning producer for his work on Aimee Mann's Mental Illness album, he also played on Jeff Parker's recent Suite for Max Brown (International Anthem), in which the longstanding Tortoise guitarist blended electric jazz with spacey grooves and samples.  Both Bryan and Parker also appear on drummer Jeremy Cunningham's The Weather Up There (Northern Spy) which came out in February.

So the story goes, Bryan hadn't played in a jazz vein for several years. That changed when Parker moved to Los Angeles and pushed his college friend back in that direction. Cri$el Gems is the result of a year-long residency at the performance space ETA where Bryan played with a rotating cast of players, eventually taking a few into the studio to capture the mood of those sets. Along with Parker, the group consists of drummer Matt Mayhall and electric pianist Leo Pardini. Davey Chegwidden (congas) and Jay Bellerose (percussion) also appear on a few tracks.

Pardini's electric piano really sets the mood for the album, projecting a mellow vibe while giving the sound some grease at the same time. Parker maintains a clean tone, adding single note lines to the music, never getting too heavy but always making sure thing don't relax too much. It's a challenge to cover Aimee Mann's "It's So Easy To Die" with no lyrics to drive the song, but by slowing it to a sleepy pace, these players project a different aura that sustains the song's looping chord progression. If the sound of the group evokes the not-quite-fusion feel of electric '70s jazz, their 21st-century mindset ensures that they're playing modern, not retro, music.

Bryan spends a lot of Cri$el Gems in the background, keeping the players on solid ground rather than playing up his role as a leader. Together with Mayhall and the various percussionists, they create enough rhythmic action to make sure things never lock in and get too calm. He does, however, peel off a slinky solo on "Lucky Thirteen" to assert his presence. The writing has a casual feel, but he uses rhythmic shifts to give it twists and turns. His 6/4 vamp in the first half  of "Pyramid Scheme" gives the rest of the group plenty of room to stretch out freely. "Phife" also adds a subtle chord change that becomes a serious melodic hook. While the album could have used a couple more of those small changes to yield a bigger harmonic impact, the group still serves up an engaging set that makes you wonder what those nights at ETA were like when they'd stretch out a little longer than five to seven minutes.

Incidentally, the album title is pronounced "crizzle gems." Although it sounds like a Snoop Dog homage, it came from Bryan's daughter, who walked into his studio during a mixing session and drew a picture inspired by what she heard. The resulting picture of a bass guitar had the title written on it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

RIP Lee Konitz, Henry Grimes, Giuseppi Logan, Bucky Pizzarelli

My wife mentioned that after David Bowie and Prince died in 2016, a friend of hers pondered that maybe the Rapture had come and those two were the only ones that were saved. After last week, I started wondering the same thing because we lost Lee Konitz, Bucky Pizzarelli, Henry Grimes and Giuseppi Logan. Maybe the Rapture is happening in slow waves, with an earlier wave having come for the likes of John Prine and Wallace Roney.

Or maybe the world just sucks.

Probably the latter.

I'm not feeling miserably depressed and my sanity is still with me. But of course the days can be exhausting, especially if you dare to look at social media and dare even further to read comments on articles or posts, wondering, "Is this going to piss me off and doubt humanity even more?"

But this blog is social media, technically, isn't it? It's time to raise the mug to some of the ones that we lost over the past week. Here is a little of what they mean to me.

Lee Konitz.
I was always interested in him because he played alto saxophone, the instrument I played while I was in high school, and thought I would seriously pursue. It was several years beyond that before I finally dug into some prime Konitz material. It started with my parents' Gerry Mulligan Quartet 10" on which Lee is a guest. I loved that cool, dry tone of his. It was clear he was on to something with those few tracks and his mind was miles ahead even as the song started because he was already beyond the head of the song, soloing away, probably reshaping it about three times before it came out of his horn.

A friend had told me about "some Konitz album" where it was just him, Elvin Jones and a bassist doing standards but never playing the theme until the very end of the tune. Imagine how stoked I was when I found Motion, the album in question, at Jerry's Records. It was convoluted, again, like the conversation between the players had started before the tapes were rolling. It felt like the record was saying, shut up and listen and dig into the nuances of what they're doing.

When I took the record over to my parents' house, my dad noticed that Sonny Dallas was the bassist. "He's from Pittsburgh. I knew him. I used to think I was a better player than him. But he was ambitious." Interesting aside - in his early 20s, I always felt my dad looked a bit like Lee Konitz, what with the crew cut and the horn-rim glasses. At least as much as an Irish Catholic boy can resemble a Jewish boy with Russian roots.

I finally got to see Lee play at the Detroit Jazz Festival in 2013. A day before his set, we crossed paths in the hotel lobby, a few hours after he had done a Q&A with one of the festival emcees. Lee was a man who didn't mince words and that was obvious at the talk. But I was in awe. So in awe that I felt that if I ever did meet him, I should say, "I love you, Lee Konitz."

That awe came to a boil upon having him to myself. I didn't express my love but I did thank him for the music.

Henry Grimes.
There was a good reason that Grimes' return to the limelight was so significant, aside from the fact that it was such a wonderful story of helping someone get back to what they were born to do. Grimes was a monster bassist. I mean, up there with Mingus. That was apparent in 2006 when he came to Pittsburgh with multi-reedist Oluyemi Thomas. The sound that emanated from Grimes' instrument was huge, rich and imaginative. The fact that he was back playing again, which happened through the efforts of a social worker, gave me hope for the world

Earlier that day, I met with Grimes to do a Before and After listening test for JazzTimes. The real reason for those types of articles is not to see how well a musician can identify performers. The goal is to uncover what they listen for, what they like or don't like, etc, and get them to talk about it. Having been out of the music arena for a few decades, Henry identified a few people but missed others. As many articles have said, he was a man of few words too, so it was hard to get much out of him that day. The piece never ran but no matter. There were bigger things he had on his mind.

Giuseppi Logan.
New York Times writer Giovanni Russonello wrote an article about Grimes and Logan, which mentioned that both had similar histories of disappearance followed by comebacks. Like Grimes, Logan recorded for ESP-Disk', releasing two albums of wild, free jazz that were intriguing despite being a bit more on the primitive side. Logan might not have been technically as adept as his peers, but there was no denying the passion of his work. More, his second album for ESP, includes a piano solo that really got to the emotional heart of what Logan was trying to convey. While I wasn't as into his 2010 comeback disc, it felt like he was just getting (re)started, getting his chops going and that greater things were coming. Hopefully, the last ten years gave him some sense of satisfaction artistically.

Bucky Pizzarelli
Of these four musicians, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli is the one whose catalog I am least familiar with. But at the same time, he was one of the most recorded guitarists in history, doing session work all the time, so perhaps I've heard him more often that I realize. Anyone who is that prolific and called upon has to be an ace at what they do, so I tip my hat to him. Besides, he played on Walter Wanderley's album Kee-Ka-Roo, an album that my sister and I practically wore out when we were kids. (At least we wore out the cover because I have the same copy at my house and the seams are totally split, making it a double gatefold record.)

Another Detroit story: The first year I attended the Festival, I was sitting in the hotel lobby talking to author Ashley Kahn (listening to him, rather) when Bucky Pizzarelli walked by. Kahn looked at him, smiled and said, "Hi, Mr. P." It made me think that anyone who can get a well-rounded author like Kahn to address him as "Mr. P" deserves kudos.

For a full obituary on Lee Konitz, check out Michael West's piece on the JazzTimes page.  There is also a great one on the WBGO website by David Adler.

West also wrote this one on Bucky Pizzarelli.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

CD Review: Curt Sydnor - Deep End Shallow

Curt Sydnor
Deep End Shallow
(Out Of Your Head)

Curt Sydnor saw something when he was young that left a strong impression on him. His hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia had a public swimming pool with elaborate cut stone in the gazebo and the pool itself. In 1961, rather than take the advice of civil rights advocates, who wanted to integrate the pool, local leaders decided to drain it, and walked away from what would have been a beautiful public space. The Riverside Park Pool still exists, only now it's become a modern ruin, with grass growing out of the pool floor. Young Curt saw that space when he was growing up and wondered what would motivate someone to take such a drastic step, denying everyone of this opportunity in the process.

Deep End Shallow is not a concept album, but keyboardist Sydnor muses about the Riverside Park Pool in two songs, the title track and "Fall Behind." The latter features him singing fragmented lyrics on the subject: "Let's describe to the high industrialists/ Fields mown fallow/ the deep end is shallow/ Don't fill it in, men/ Think of the children."

Unless you know it's there, the lyrical punch might be easy to miss. While Sydnor has the chops to pull of some prog-jazz - which occurs throughout the album - "Fall Behind" leans a little closer to psychedelic electronics heard in bands like Black Moth Super Rainbow and the solo work by their front man Tobacco. Voices are distorted to the point where it's hard to tell if Sydnor is singing lyrics or simply vocalizing. If the message is buried in translation, it puts more emphasis on the layered music surrounding the words.

Out of Your Head, the label spearheaded by bassist Adam Hopkins, lays claim to a catalog that includes complex jazz by Hopkins and Dustin Carlson, as well as Michael Attias' dexterous saxophone/piano performances.  Sydnor sounds nothing like either of those things, which is part of the charm. Along with the latest Destroyer album, Have We Met, Deep End Shallow has taken vintage keyboard sounds that were once novel voices used minimally by '80s bands and has given them a serious role in creating progressive music . The album also includes a seemingly far-flung group of players: Deerhoof's Greg Saunier on drums, Matisyahu collaborator Aaron Dugan on guitar; Michael Coltun of Mdou Moctar on bass; and saxophonist Caroline Davis.

Sometimes the instruments blend together. "Rus in Urbe" sounds like an aggressive version of mid '70s Soft Machine where it's hard to tell Davis' horn from Syndor's overdriven keys, since the saxophonist ran her instrument through a guitar amp. This comes amidst Dugan's shredding breakdown. Just as things start getting veering towards proggy soundtrack music ("Them"), Syndor jettisons the band and sits at the acoustic piano for "Fieldgaze Variations," a contemplative Romantic piece that's bookended by a sizzling sound that might have come from the amps that he, Davis and Dugan just finished ravaging on the previous tracks.

Curt Sydnor has a lot of ideas of what kind of music he wants to play. (Now residing in Richmond, VA, he spent several years living and playing in Brooklyn.) In addition to all of the above, "Starewell" launches the album with a keyboard riff inspired by Herbie Hancock. Sometimes the act of putting all your muses in one basket spreads an artist too thin. The mix of styles on Deep End Shallow, on other hand, has yielded an diverse program. It might cause some head scratching but things become clear pretty quickly.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

CD Review: Liberty Ellman - Last Desert

Liberty Ellman
Last Desert

Guitarist Liberty Ellman's music is constructed in such a way that all the performers have interlocking parts that all work together. Although members of the band get a chance to lead the music at various times, it doesn't always sound like they're playing a solo, definitely not in the traditional sense. Often times trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson makes a brief, brightly colored statement which is quickly followed by alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, who fires off a series of rapid lines. The brevity of these moments in a piece like "The Sip" makes them feel more like an open section where the players recline in the mood of the music, rather than play over changes. 

Even though Ellman's sextet locks in with one another, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a smooth ride either. In "Doppler," the guitarist, bassist Stephan Crump, tubaist Jose Davila and drummer Damion Reid roll on a moderate 6/8 while Lehman and Finlayson play a staccato melody in four on top of them. The horns aren't playing the kind of melody that meets the other players every few bars either. It feels a little unsettling, but anyone familiar with fellow Pi artist Steve Coleman (with whom Finlayson plays) can hear the musical logic as these two parts move as one.

It helps that this group knows each other so well too. They all played on Ellman's last album, Radiate, in 2015 and their paths have crossed in other projects.  The guitarist and Davila both play in Henry Threadgill's Zooid. Lehman's octet features Davila and Finlayson, and his trio includes Reid. Crump also plays with Ellman in the bassist's Rosetta Trio. The comfort they exude makes the music flow easily.

While the two-part title track might be the album's centerpiece, the eight-minute "Portals" offers a detailed account of how the band moves.  After a haunting, out of tempo melody, Crump plays a throughtful bass interlude marked by both rapid plucking and open space. Then Reid shapes the mood with a pulse that cues everyone, sans Davila, back in. Ellman favors single note lines, drawing on his unique melodic scope. The guitarist sounds a bit like his mind wants to rush but his notes always sound crisp. When he does play polyphonically, particularly in "Lost Desert Part 1," it adds to bright splash of color to the setting, even if the attack happens quickly. 

In the end, one of the most impressive things about Lost Desert might be that no one comes across as a leader in this music. Everyone's role is equally significant and all six of them shift between support roles, which add clarity, and moments where they take center stage, with no easy way to predict when the role will change. Just keep listening to discover how this happens.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

RIP Hal Willner

I've always thought John Zorn helped me to discover Thelonious Monk, and it's true to a great extent. But I never would have discovered Monk if Zorn hadn't appeared on That's the Way I Feel Now, a wide-ranging tribute to the great pianist which was assembled by producer Hal Willner. So maybe it's Willner I owe big time.

Hal Willner passed away yesterday at the age of 64. It hasn't been confirmed yet but it appears that he was suffering from symptoms of the coronavirus. Along with Ellis Marsalis, Bill Withers, Mike Longo, Manu Dibango, Wallace Roney and many others, it's almost too much to bear.

But I am here to praise Mr. Willner, not bury him. Around 1983 when I was aspiring to be an alto saxophonist, I discovered John Zorn playing that horn along with an array of duck and bird calls.on the first Golden Palominos album. Suddenly I wanted to hear everything he was doing. That eventually lead me to That's the Way I Feel Now, which featured him playing "Shuffle Boil," a deep Monk cut, of course.

Although I was getting into jazz, having purchased some Coltrane, Miles and even Ornette, I wasn't really up on Monk, aside from the fact that I knew I should be. This album was a perfect primer for me. To present a thumbnail sketch, it went from Monk's close associates like Charlie Rouse and Barry Harris on one end to Zorn and Shockabilly (who totally ripped "Criss Cross" apart) on the other. In between, French hornist Sharon Freeman (and four other people on that same instrument) make "Monk's Mood" sound like what he might have heard as he walked through the Pearly Gates. And no less than Peter Frampton killed on a version of "Work." Rather than list everyone that played on it, click here to check out the whole lineup.

But the music wasn't all that Willner provided. Hoping that his production would motivate listeners to find the original versions of these songs, Willner provided an index on the inner sleeves. One list had a select discography, the other cross-referenced albums and songs. It also included the address for Mosaic Records who had just released their first box set - Monk's complete Blue Note recordings. I know at least one person that took all that information to heart. You're reading his words now.

Who would do all that? (I usually don't ask questions when I'm writing but this situation calls for it.) Someone who really cares about music. Someone who knows music and wants to share it, even when it's delivered with some crazy ideas added to the mix.

The same thing happened when Willner produced Weird Nightmare, a tribute to Charles Mingus in 1992. He even admits in the liner notes that Sue Mingus might have thought he was crazy for this one. This time around, he incorporated instruments built by Harry Partch into the arrangements, which didn't really add anything to the music - aside from intrigue. But even though it wasn't as consistent, it worked because it was a Hal Willner production, and the flops were just as significant as the home runs. Yeah, Keith Richards' swagger in "Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me" is embarrassing (he gets the title wrong in the introduction) but the ensemble's swampy version of "Canon" is the epitome of dark pedal point drone in my book. And when Robbie Robertson reads from Beneath the Underdog in the second part of that track, it slays me every time.

My wife had a similar eye-opening experience thanks to Willner. Being a Tom Waits fan, she bought Lost In the Stars (The Music of Kurt Weill). That album introduced her to Marianne Faithful, who appeared on it. She also researched Weill and came across the works of his wife Lotte Lenya. Then she picked up Stay Awake, the Disney tribute album on which Willner got Waits, Ringo Starr, Sun Ra and the Replacements to all interpret songs from Disney movies.

Naturally those accomplishments are just the tip of the iceberg with Hal Willner. He worked on Saturday Night Live. If he hadn't asked Jeff Buckley to perform at a tribute to the singer's estranged father, the world might have never heard of the younger Buckley. As the music director for Night Music, he curated one of the craziest music shows to ever grace the airwaves. If you don't believe me, go to youtube and find Bongwater performing "You Don't Love Me Yet." That performance encapsulated everything that was right about music to me in 1990.

But those tribute albums both shaped me in ways that I almost take for granted now. And the mention of his name brought me and Jennie together years ago.

So, Hal, thanks. Your bold outlook is an inspiration. You can't be replicated but I hope someone listens to the world with the same joie de vivre that you did.

CD Review: Shabaka & the Ancestors - We Are Sent Here By History

Shabaka and the Ancestors
We Are Sent Here By History

"We Are Sent Here by History is a meditation on the fact of our coming extinction as a species. It is a reflection from the ruins, from the burning, a questioning of the steps to be taken in preparation for our transition individually and societally if the end is to be seen as anything but a tragic defeat." - Shabaka Hutchings

There's really no way that Shabaka Hutchings could have been thinking of the COVID-19 pandemic was he was preparing his new album. In this statement, he continues by talking about how "western expansionism, capitalist thought and white supremist [sic] structural hegemony" have brought us to this end. So he's looking far beyond the virus and these modern times. Nevertheless, it's a little too prescient.

Which is not to say that We Are Sent Here by History is a downer of an album. It's heavy at times, but it comes in the form of driving jazz with African and Afro-Caribbean foundations that reinforce the urgency of the music. Tenor saxophonist Hutchings's approach has more of a wide-ranging appeal, which can appeal to listeners whose tastes might lean more towards Robert Glasper than Matthew Shipp. While his performances might inspire audiences to cut the rug instead of listening attentively, neither does Hutchings simply play things to lure that kind of crowd either.

Hutchings, born in Britain and raised in Barbados,  and the Ancestors - a group of South African jazz musicians - debuted in 2016 with Wisdom of Elders. The new album marks their debut for Impulse!, and the label is an apt place for him. His music dips into the spiritual jazz that Pharoah Sanders recorded for the label in '60s and '70s. In fact, "Beast Too Spoke of Suffering" fades in much like Side Two of Sanders' Karma, when "The Creator Has a Master Plan" reaches the point where free jazz commingles with a tent revival. However, Hutchings' free moments don't get as searing.

He plays with more restraint, showing variety throughout the set in the way he alters his tone. When moments call for it, Hutchings' upper register has a crying tone similar to John Coltrane. In "The Coming Of the Strange Ones" he has the attack of a bar walking honker. "Teach Me How to Be Vulnerable," which closes the album with only Thandi Ntuli's piano behind him, sounds like he's playing a lyric due to the ruminative quality of  his performance.

Although he gets plenty of room to blow, as does alto saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu, Hutchings's solos often feel more like variations on riffs. It isn't until "Til the Freedom Comes Home" that he really gets a chance to fully stretch out as a soloist.

But with the Ancestors' churning behind him, there's never a moment where it sounds like Hutchings is settling. Drummer Tumi Mogorosi and percussionist Gontse Makhene create plenty fire of an Elvin Jones variety, tumbling and driving the music, along with Ariel Zamonksy's solid bass grooves (during which you can hear the wood of his instrument resonating). Many of the tracks feature Siyabongu Mthembu singing, but the vocals never get in the way of, or distract, from the music. In fact the lyrics, and Mthembu's background shouts, elevate the emotion.

Granted there are more aspects of We Are Sent Here By History that could be excavated, such as the lyrical contexts, written by Mthembu and sung in languages such as Zulu. But even without knowing the text, it proves that the music stands on its own as a solid release.

Monday, April 06, 2020

CD Review - Landline

Another release from late last  year that should be noticed now.

(Loyal Label)

It sounds like a crazy concept for a musical project. Or one so esoteric that it might only appeal to the performers and their close supporters. Four musicians get together for a project where no one, absolutely not one of them, is a leader. Each of them has two weeks to compose a piece. They can use any medium to compose it - standard notation, graphic scoring or whatever. Upon the two week deadline, the music is passed along to another band member, who can add to it, change it or leave it alone. Then it gets passed to the next player. Everyone gets to initiate an idea and serve as second, third or fourth person on the other player's works. The process is inspired by the kid's game "Telephone," where information gets reshaped with every person it passes through. The band name Landline riffs on the Telephone concept.

The egalitarian quartet consists of Chet Doxas (tenor saxophone), Jacob Sacks (piano), Zack Lober (bass) and Vinnie Sperrazza (drums), who have come up with an album that never allows the listener to settle easily into any situation for very long. Instead, the album feels like a 12-part suite where even the lines between the pieces get blurred, adding to the intrigue of the whole thing. "Michael Attias" begins in tribute to its namesake's dexterity at playing piano and saxophone simultaneously with an out of tempo unison line that later gets played in a canon over a chugging rhythm section. Without looking at the CD player, it's hard to tell where it ends and "Modern Jazz" begins, with its piano and tenor alternately playing close together and in opposition over a rigid pulse.

Short pieces act as interludes, revealing that the band realized that laying out can be as effective as playing. At least one track last around just a minute or so, and several don't end so much as merely stop. Sacks plays mostly single notes in "Crystalline," waiting until they've completely decayed before striking the next key. The rest of the group sits this one out, leaving his sparse approach to fill the room, albeit sparingly. Next up, "Feel the Bernstein" finds him playing a dislocated Monk lines over steady rhythm section before Doxas enters gruffly, eventually joining him in a theme.

"12 Years" sounds like an Wayne Shorter abstraction from a mid '60s Miles Davis album, with Sperrazza simply rolling on the cymbals while Doxas plays long tones. In "Shiny Things," the saxophonist simply toys with the pads on his horn without blowing a pitch, and Lober takes the most prominent role in the languid scene. To prove that the band can come together and groove, they follow this track with "After the Money" which has a loose-limbed groove making it move.

Only half of the quartet's 24 pieces appear on this album, which means there is very likely going to be a sequel in the offing. Landline is one of those rare albums where the journey feels just as exciting as the destination. Maybe that is esoteric after all, but it's esoteric in the non-pejorative sense.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

"Stairway to Heaven" and "Free Bird" To Be Pulled From the Airwaves

Back in January, word leaked out that the self-proclaimed "#1 Audio Company in America" was engaging in a series of massive layoffs across the country. As Rolling Stone aptly described it, the move struck a serious blow to local radio, an institution that is slowly coming to a halt. Locally 3WS (WWSW-FM 94.5) seems to have eliminated the '60s from their "oldies" playlist, adding freeze-dried music from the 1980s in its wake.

Now it appears that two of classic rocks songs might be put out to pasture.  A internal memo obtained by a college intern says that Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" are set to be pulled from commercial radio playlists around the country. While some listeners might rejoice at the move, having heard both songs enough to last a lifetime, the move isn't being taken because of oversaturation. It's based on length.

"Stairway to Heaven," originally from Led Zeppelin's fourth album - which was originally untitled but has also become known unofficially as ZOSO due to the one of the set of runes that appeared on the album - clocks in at 7:55. "Free Bird," from Lynyrd Skynyrd's debut album (Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'erd), comes in at a whopping 9:08. (In keep with industry standards from the 1970s, both bands also released live versions of the tunes, which drag on even longer and feature banter before and during the songs, which has also become iconic.) Therein lies the rub: Both songs are too damn long for today's commercial playlists.

"We understand that a lot of people love these songs. Some of our executives have claimed that they, literally, would not be here right now if these songs hadn't been playing on car radios at a certain time," the memo states, "but the industry is changing. We didn't become the top dog in the USA by clogging the airwaves with noodling over three-chord riffs or lyrics that don't make sense. It's done with advertising."

The intern who obtained the memo - who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of losing an opportunity to work in an industry that hires their demographic - sat in on the meeting when the announcement was made. "No one seemed to be to bothered by it," says the intern, who luckily made it home for springbreak just before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. "A lot of the dudes in the room said they didn't really know the songs anyway. The senior staff people said that listeners might get mad but the bigwigs don't seem to really care about music anyway."

And how did the intern feel? "I didn't think I knew the songs. But my dad pulled them up on Spotify and gave me a hard time for not knowing them," she said. "And I was, like, 'Oh, yeah., you played  these at my graduation party.'"

With Covid-19 putting business on hold, it's unclear when the two songs will be deleted from the hard drive, or whether they're just two in a longer list of songs that will be pulled. When asked if there was any mention of the Outlaws' equally lengthy (9:46) boogie jam "Green Grass and High Tides" making way for more commercials, the intern replied, "I don't know what that is."

Saturday, March 28, 2020

CD Review: Bobby Previte/Jamie Saft/Nels Cline - Music from the 21st Century

Bobby Previte/Jamie Saft/Nels Cline
Music from the 21st Century

(I realize this is the third album featuring Nels Cline which I've blogged about in the less than 10 days. But it does present him in a different context, one that shows up his rocking side a little more.)

When a non-jazz playing group gets together for rehearsal, the following scenario is not too out of the ordinary. Each member of the band starts setting up, testing levels, effects pedals, hardware, etc. Inevitably one member of the band starts warming up on a riff or some sort of idea. As the rest of the band gets situated, someone else joins in. It keeps happening until everyone is playing together.

That first "tune" of rehearsal can be exhilarating. Volumes are set to the ideal level that the player wants. Without an audience or sound person or even a clock to interrupt the moment, there are no expectations to be fulfilled, only a riff to get lost in. The potential and excitement of the rest of practice can come to light in that first spontaneous song.

I've been in that situation many times at practices. Sometimes completed songs have sprouted from those riffs but there have also been many times where the initial magic of those uninhibited moments can't be replicated in the exact same manner. Close to it, yes, but never with the same unbridled spirit.

Bobby Previte (drums), Jamie Saft (Hammond Organ, Fender Rhodes, MiniMoog) and Nels Cline (guitars, effects) are no run of the mill trio though. So when they launch into "Photobomb," it might be a spontaneous riff, but it's a riff that takes that practice space warm-up scenario and multiplies it by ten. "Photobomb," which opens this album, has a two-chord vamp, though the first chord is played over seven beats, with the second one only hanging for the eighth beat, so it's almost a one-chord groove. But repetition is always stronger when it's built on an extended series of notes like that. Saft's organ bares its sharp teeth, with an overdriven bass line and a mix of drawbar settings that fall somewhere between Larry Young and Rod Argent. Before long, Cline is wailing and Previte is pushing his brothers as hard as he can. And that's just the first track.

Music from the 21st Century contains an almost equal amount of vamps or jams - whatever you want to call them - and free wailing. The ten tracks come from a mini-tour the trio took in May of last year through Upstate New York and Central Pennsylvania.

It was the first time Cline and Previte had come together in an improvised setting (the guitarist played on two of the drummer's composed projects). Vin Cin recorded and mastered the sessions, which has the clarity of a pure studio session, until the last few seconds, when the group ends together and the audience can be heard. Previte pared down the prime moments into tracks that, for the most part, maintain focus. Rarely does the band just spins their wheels, waiting for the inspiration to hit. Even the 14-minute "Occession," which only takes shape mid-way through the track, has an interesting build.

While Cline's fretwork conjures some of the most outlandish textures - going from clean jazz to metallic crunch to effects-heavy snowstorms - Saft's Hammond gives the music the sonic glue. He sounds downright monstrous in a track like "Paywall," where he captures the spirit of Deep Purple's Jon Lord, only to go into a walking bass pedal line as the track fades. "Parkour," which follows, picks up on the same idea, but it's hard to tell if the tracks came from different nights of the tour.

While listening to the album, Saft continually reminded my ears of Rod Argent's sound with his post-Zombies band Argent, best known for "Hold Your Head Up." Ironically, Saft, Cline & Previte threw some covers into their sets during the tour, which included the Zombies' "She's Not There" and Led Zeppelin's keyboard-heavy "No Quarter."

If this album gets a buzz, maybe they'll follow it up with a set the cover tunes and call it Music from the 20th Century.