Monday, October 02, 2023

Sam Rivers Centennial Concert in Pittsburgh

Monday, September 25 marked the 100th birthday of the late great saxophonist/ flutist/ pianist/ composer/ loft activist Sam Rivers. Many articles appeared about his legacy in the days leading up to it, from the New York Times on down, and a few concerts and events happened in different cities over the weekend prior to the big day. But Pittsburgh appears to have been the only place to stage a centennial salute and performance to Rivers on the actual day of his birth. 

With the Sam Rivers Archive now being processed at the University of Pittsburgh, bassist Dylan Zeh and saxophonist Derek Bendel (full disclosure - a good friend of mine) have started putting together a set of Rivers music, with a recording project coming soon. The two of them have a regular trio with drummer Ross Antonich; last Monday they were joined by flutist Trē Abalos, because you should have a flute when playing Sam Rivers music, since he often switched to that instrument, mid-performance, from tenor saxophone.

Before the Rivers set started, Matt Aelmore and Vicky Davide opened the evening with a set of free improvisations. Aelmore started out on trumpet while Davide played flute. The combination of the two started off sounding spare and gentle and built up. At first it was purely acoustic, but after awhile Davide looped a few flute lines which gave the music a little texture and shape. She also used some extended technique like just blowing air through the instrument without hitting pitches. It added an earthy almost sensual feeling to the sound, and avoided turning it into an avant hat trick. 

The duo switched it up a bit too, when Aelmore picked up his bass guitar (which he plays with Emily Rodgers Band, among others) and Davide switched to what looked like a penny whistle or a wooden flute. When they were done playing, it felt like they had just warmed up and could've gone on another 15 minutes or so. Maybe next time.

A big question looms at a performance like this - What Sam Rivers tunes will the group play? Will there be discernable compositions or quick ideas, following by unique free blowing? Dare the group try to pull off one continuous piece for a set, like Sam did on album like Streams in the '70s?  Well, I was pondering these questions.

Zeh explained during the set that he grew up in Orlando, Florida, where Rivers lived out the last fruitful years of his life, leading bands of various sizes and writing prolifically. This, after many years of living in New York where his RivBea loft was a flagship locale during the loft jazz scene of the '70s and music happened almost non-stop. 

Three of the group's pieces came from Rivers' debut, Fuchsia Swing Song. They launched into the set with "Cyclic Episode" which has a strong, forward-pulling melody line. Without a piano to guide with chords (Rivers had Jaki Byard on his recording) the Zeh group was liberated a bit but still kept to the changes. Throughout the set, the blend of Bendel's tenor and Abalos' flute created an otherworldly sound, nearly making the latter instrument sound more like a set of vibes. 

Although most of the set featured compositions, Zeh and Bendel played a tenor/bass duet that was built on/inspired by "Cascades" from a 1976 album by Rivers and Dave Holland on IAI Records. (They did at least two for that label, and both had tracks with water-based titles.) Like the rest of the set, the duet proved that these guys have been working on this material in earnest. It didn't go off into rabid free territory, instead carving their own ideas from what Sam and Dave once did. Nor did it drag on. Everything had a sense of economy to it. 

But everyone still had plenty of room to stretch out. Abalos, who Zeh told me later does not usually play jazz or improvised music, seemed a natural at it. Antonich played with a laid back swing that still has plenty of drive; I'm pretty sure it was "Sprung," one of Rivers' later compositions recorded with his Orlando trio, in which he really kicked it hard. Zeh also got plenty of solo space, balancing sharp thoughts and groove. Bendel was in the hot seat, since he was playing the role of Rivers, in a way. But his performance delivered a good balance of brawn and twisted melodies. 

I could've gone for a second set. In fact I was hoping they might play a little more. Aside from that, the only distraction came from a photographer who took pictures throught the whole set. With a flash. I don't expect a photographer to be like Teenie Harris, taking one shot and being done. But jeez, oh pete, that flash was a bit much during the 60-minute (at least) set.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Thinking About the Birthday Party and the "Mutiny In Heaven" Documentary

It occurred to me, in the days leading up to seeing Mutiny In Heaven, that the Birthday Party broke up 40 years ago. I'm not sure which came first, hearing that the band had broken up or the release of the Mutiny EP. But I associate both of them with the fall of 1993, when I was in 11th grade, which is easy for me to track because my son, who is basically 40 years younger than me, is now a junior in high school. 

Since it's been so long, and having heard so many wide-ranging Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album since then, and finally seeing the man himself live a few years ago, I had forgotten how much the Birthday Party's visceral sound was such a big part of my life during those high school years. I tend to look back and think about how the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü were the bands that inspired the music I played because they were active at that time. But those bands were around when I finally started making music seriously. The Birthday Party were gone by then and besides, there was no way I could come close to approximating that sound and feeling, especially when playing with high school kids who routinely thought I was nuts when I went off a little in the music. But few bands rivaled them in my book at that time.

Mutiny In Heaven starts off with a warning about flashing lights appearing in the film. They should have included a warning about thick Australian accents being part of it too. Of course I might be too used to running the subtitles on the screen when I'm watching movies at home, to ensure I don't miss anything. The sound on our home tv really varies with sudden drops and increases at times. 

The film screened at the Harris Theater downtown, so there was no chance of getting subtitles, but after awhile, I got used to the accents and leaned in harder to hear the parts that were playing overtime of performances. The only problem was the voiceovers weren't introduced at the start and Mick Harvey, Phill Calvert (the band's original drummer) and Nick Cave and, to some degree Rowland S. Howard were hard to distinguish in the early sequences. As the movie proceeded, Howard was often onscreen in interviews when speaking, so that made it a little easier. 

Director Ian White did an impressive job of digging up ancient footage of the band from their late teenage years when the group was known as the Boys Next Door.  It's kind of charming to see a very young Nick Cave looking closer to a fresh-faced new wave kid than to the demonic performer that he would become. (For a good example of the former, and one that doesn't appear in the film, click here.) 

When making a documentary like this, the director runs the risk of relying on a bunch of talking heads  to tell the story, with breaks for live footage, hopefully. Several documentaries (Beware Mr. Baker, Chasing Trane) use animated sequences to break things up. In the case of Mutiny In Heaven, several pen and ink animations creep up throughout the film, depicting Cave's introduction to Howard (I think it was Rowland), heroin use, and bassist Tracy Pew's car theft that landed him in jail briefly while the band was still together. These segments don't exactly camp it up but it came a little close.

The real payoff comes with all the live footage, even if it was often synced up with the studio recordings. (I've heard them enough to know the subtle mixes of a lot of them.) The use of the two didn't detract from the intended effect, however. It kind of plays up how manic - and dangerous - the group could be live. Granted, every band likes to describe themselves as dangerous when they get onstage, but watching the footage of the band - Howard stalking the stage as he made his guitar scream, Cave bopping up and down while singing frantically, Pew grinding his body, eventually laying down in one scene, still gyrating - goes a long way towards proving that a Birthday Party gig could actually be dangerous, for the band and audience.

Despite all of that, the band never comes off as assholes. I'm sure there were people around that time who can probably say otherwise, but unlike the Butthole Surfers, for instance, a band that definitely put their audience at risk and were rather abusive in general, the Birthday Party still seems rather charming. Maybe it's because they seemed a little smarter than most punks. Several times people remember Pew as the kind of guy who could be seen reading both porn magazines and Plato. After the band broke up, he eventually went to college to study literature and philosophy. He died in 1986 of a brain hemorrhage. 

It's not a spoiler to mention that the film doesn't attempt to wrap everything up nice and neat in the end, after the band breaks up. In fact, I felt like it left a few details out, such as the name of the drummer who replaced Mick Harvey on the final tour (Des Hefner) and whether or not Blixa Bargeld's appearance on the Mutiny EP served to fill in for a departed Rowland Howard (still not sure). Regardless, it ends without anyone feeling the need to give an overview of the mess the band left behind. Or how crushed we young yanks were when it was over. 

Mutiny always felt like an anti-climatic ending to me. Of course nothing could top the insanity of The Bad Seed, the EP that came out earlier that year. Right as that record came out, my 10th grade English teacher Mrs. Kogut had explained what catharsis was. I knew exactly what she was talking about because that's what I felt every time I cued up that record and "Sonny's Burning" came on. 

The band had been upping the ante with each release prior to that. When Cave screamed for 14 seconds straight in "Blast Off" (the B-side to "Release the Bats"), he knocked me against the wall. The live version of "King Ink" on Drunk On the Pope's Blood takes it further; he sounds like he's being crucified. (I loved it then but these days I might have preferred he calmed down a little.) After that lung-shredding scream in "Big Jesus Trash Can" where could he go? Everything about "Sonny's Burning" put me on edge, the relentless snare beats, the guitar (even if it sounded a tad like metal), and the way it nearly fell apart after each verse. I wanted to break shit each time it came on. That summer I worked in a record store and when I copy of The Bad Seed came in, you can bet I played it, in hopes of scaring the hell out of the squares who were in the shop at that time. 

That being said, Mutiny felt like a retread. "Jennifer's Veil" felt like a simpler "Wild World" with more primitive drumming. Swampland" felt half-baked and even though Howard's "Say A Spell" was a cool, slinky thing, it seemed to leave listeners hanging. Is that it? "Mutiny In Heaven" was great but it closed off the first side.

Turns out, running order can change everything. When both EPs were released together, the Mutiny sessions added two more tunes, the murky "Pleasure Avalanche" and the dirty "Six Strings that Drew Blood" (the latter I knew from a few live tapes), adding a little more bite to that was absent on the four-song record. The disc also flips the original sequence on its head, putting "Say A Spell" after "Jennifer's Veil." "Mutiny In Heaven" comes last, which makes a lot more sense. Instead of the casual swagger exit to stage left, Nick and the boys set the building on fire and walk out through the one open doorway, leaving it to collapse in their wake. 

When that song plays during the closing credits (don't call it a spoiler because you saw it coming) I almost got choked up. Not for sentimental reasons but for cathartic reasons.

Incidentally, I listened to "Sonny's Burning" on the way to the theater and it STILL makes me want to break shit.

This entry is dedicated to the memory of Lee Connelly, who was the biggest Birthday Party fanatic in Pittsburgh back in the day. 

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Thumbscrew Comes Back to Pittsburgh For Round 5

Thumbscrew came back to Alphabet City (the physical space connected to City of Asylum; I think I've been lax here and make them sound like one and the same, which isn't exactly accurate) on Monday, September 18. It marked the trio's fifth performance at the space and, like several others, it culminated a long visit that also included recording a new album at Small's, the recording studio down the road from Alphabet City.

The trio hit the stage and spoke not a word but went right into the set. I kept waiting for one of them to pick up the microphone and back announce a couple song titles so we'd know these new pieces. But no go. They were too far in the zone, I suppose. 

On their last visit or two, the group played a few things that I recall getting pretty free and unhinged. Michael Formanek even switched from upright bass to bass guitar. Not so tonight. There was plenty of energy on display but, perhaps due to the material being a bit new, they never got too wild.

The first couple pieces were interesting because Mary Halvorson's guitar and Formanek's bass both took turns being the focal point of the melodies. In the first piece, Formanek was in the lead, playing loudly, as the group went into a relaxed 6/8 meter. The bassist really tore into the second track. Just when it felt like the form of the piece was hard to see, drummer Tomas Fujiwara got it all in line. One of these days, I'll get to see Halvorson's left hand while she's playing, but tonight it was hidden behind the music stand, only seen occasionally. Her signature sound of warped/bent notes continues to expand with different nuances rather than becoming predictable. As focused as she looks during the set, she still delivers in a way that seems effortless (even if the opposite is true). 

Fujiwara switched from his drum kit to vibes for a couple pieces, walking across the stage to the spot where the instrument was set up. One of them felt like a Thumbscrew take on the blues, leaning on what sounded like minor thirds in the melody. (I could be wrong, as I'm going from notes that I took during the show.) Another vibes-based piece had a lot of drive to it, with some propulsive guitar lines. Another, later in the set, had a dreamy feeling and moved in a manner that could have been completely composed or just offered a moment to show exactly how mentally in tune the players are with one another.

The one time during the set that Formanek took the mike and talked to us, he introduced a version of Charles Mingus' "Orange Was the Color Of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues." When the Baron did it originally, he relied on two and often three horns to voice the melody. Thumbscrew did an impressive job of delivering the kick of the song (with its multiple shifts to double-time and back) and the melody with just these three. It really put the trio into high gear for the last two tunes of the set, which climaxed with some furious power from Fujiwara. 

Whenever that new album comes out, maybe we can say we heard it first in Pittsburgh.

Monday, September 18, 2023

CD Review: Greenlief/Raskin 2 + 2 With Jen Baker & Liz Allbee


2 + 2
2 + 2 With Jen Baker & Liz Allbee

Rova Saxophone Quartet member Jon Raskin (alto, baritone saxophones) and Phillip Greenlief (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones) created 2 + 2 with the idea of combining their reeds with two other "like" instruments. In this recently released 2006 session, they enlisted Liz Allbee (trumpet) and Jen Baker (trombone) for a set of group improvisations mixed with some composed graphic scores. 
Without a rhythm section to keep the ground in sight, this quartet is free to take to the skies, paying heed only to the sounds emanating around them. 

An album like this can make the listener wonder what is greater, the whole or the sum of the parts. The question comes to mind because there are many moments through the 38-minute session where Allbee's trumpet doesn't sound prominent. It could be that she's waiting for the right moment to come in. Conversely, it could mean that she's blending really well with her bandmates, blurring the reed/brass line. In "Tableaux," the opening group improvisation, her muted playing is noticeable after a few minutes, in subtle contrast to the Baker's brawny exhortations and the contrasting saxophones (soprano and baritone). 

However, "Night Town," the nearly 20-minute centerpiece of the album (a score by Greenlief), is where Allbee makes her presence known. She begins unaccompanied and continues for nearly five minutes, with a tone and ideas that feel like a trumpet oratorio cut up into smaller pieces and delivered that way, with some  notes bent or rumpled for dynamics. As she fades naturally, her companions enter with a blend of blown air, pad flutters and percussive sounds that evoke brushes on a snare drum. As things build, the overtones ring out almost like gamelans.

So maybe the whole is greater in this case. Perhaps it's better not to pick things apart, trying to figure out which saxophonist is on alto or what horns about being used, for instance. Better to notice the way the quartet interacts. In "2 + 2" (the other scored piece, by Raskin) everyone moves their own way, but the sound is never cluttered. Also, at that moment when Allbee is noticeable in "Tableaux" everyone has landed together on a chord, or an approximation of one. That kind of confluence contributes to the excitement in improvisation, just as much as Greenlief's call to arms at the start of "Light Bending" elicits a variety of wails and moans from everyone.

The sound of 2 + 2 adds to the vitality of the performance. Recorded at the 21 Grand DIY space, the acoustics put the listener there, noticing the way the natural reverb affects the horns, doing things like adding more bite to the staccato notes from the saxophones.

Monday, September 04, 2023

Julian Lage Comes to Pittsburgh, Sept. 6

Labor Day Weekend has always been a time when I think back to where I was on that same day in years gone by. Sitting around the house all day as a kid, watching the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon (no idea why, except that maybe I bought into the hype); times when I felt a sense of renewal with a new school year and, later, usually a new apartment; a sense of regret in high school that, once again, summer came and went and I didn't have a band together yet, or one that could make it all the way through a song that had a change in it.

Among the good memories, there's the Detroit Jazz Festival, which takes place every Labor Day weekend. JazzTimes sent me there to cover it a few times. The most exciting trip was the first time I was flown to the Motor City, in 2009, right when the magazine had come back to life after a few dark months where it looked like the lights weren't going to come on again. I had only traveled for an article once before, and never to an event like this, where strangers seemed excited to meet me - and all this freaking music was mine for the taking. I was leaving my wife and two-year old son for several days, and they were okay with it!

I believe it was the last day of the 2009 festival (which would have been Labor Day) that Gary Burton was playing at one of the bigger stages. (My original article was written on two or three computers back and is long gone, as is my article for the website, so I have no notes from which to refer.) The vibraphonist had Julian Lage playing guitar with him. Lage was clearly much younger than the rest of the band, only 21 at the time. But he was playing with technique and imagination well beyond his years. His ideas seemed really advanced. (Only later did I find out that he was a child prodigy who was the subject of a documentary [Jules at Eight] and played at the Grammys when he was 12.) Despite all that, he lacked any sense of a cocksure young jazz guy who might be stone-faced serious about what he did. To the contrary, when introduced to him, Lage had more of a "gosh, thanks" attitude that made him even more likeable. 

A lot of time has passed since that day, with a lot of music flowing out from Mr. Lage. Through legendary jazz guitarist Jim Hall, Lage met Nels Cline, the iconoclastic guitarist who has been a longstanding member of Wilco in addition to releasing numerous albums that draw on uninhibited improvisation, compositions that draw on jazz and rock and a strong sense of tradition. The combination of these two players might seem odd on paper, but on disc (Room), they brought out the best in each other. 

When Lage came here to Pittsburgh in 2016, we spoke in advance of the show about musicians have a strong, identifiable voice. "It reminds me of Nels, and also of someone like Roy Haynes who plays with everybody. People who tend to play well with a lot of people, they kind of always do the same thing, in a certain way," he said. "And that’s what’s reliable. If you play with five different bands and play five different ways, you really diffuse your sound. But if you more or less have a similar take on proportions – tension/release, ballads, drama, humor – if you stay true to those principles but adjust the touch of your instrument and also the decision of the people you're playing with. I think you can have your cake and eat it too. 

"When the context changes, it’ll shine a different light on you. But if you also change, then the spotlight doesn’t really know where to look." 

Following 2022's View With A Room (his second album as a leader on Blue Note Records),  Lage released the EP The Layers earlier this year. In addition to his regular rhythm section of Jorge Roeder (bass) and Dave "Bad Plus" King (drums) (who I caught at the Village Vanguard with Lage in 2020), the six tracks include veteran guitarist Bill Frisell as a frontline partner. The tracks are by turns tranquil ("This World"), dreamy and ambient with these two very distinct guitars echoing off one another ("Missing Voices") and sweet with unexpected chromatic changes adding an edge to the theme (the title track).

This week's show in town will be a solo performance but rest assured that Lage excels just as well by himself as he does in the company of his peers.

Julian Lage comes to Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland as part of the Andy Warhol Museum's Sound Series. Songwriter Elijah Wolf opens the show. Wednesday, September 6. 8 pm. Click here for more details. 

Final Four For Mingus - A Live Report

Dr. AJ Johnson has hosted four programs at City of Asylum in recent months, all devoted to the music of Charles Mingus. I missed the first three so I made sure not to the miss the final one. 
"The Final Four For Mingus" took place on Thursday, August 31.  

The instrumentation was put together to ensure that the group would be able to create the feel for a Mingus score, with a cast of familiar faces and a few surprises. Dr. Johnson lead the group and played trombone and tuba. The saxophone section featured Opek/Thoth Trio leader Ben Opie (on tenor exclusively tonight) and Rick Matt (baritone sax, flute) along with relative newcomer Ini Oguntola, who almost stood out with his alto solos that both acknowledged the Mingus work and blew with passion. Tommy Lehman, who came on a recommendation from Sean Jones, held the trumpet seat, getting a good jagged tone that Mingus liked, especially when his mute was in use. The rhythm section consisted of Mark Michelli (piano), Jeff Grubbs (bass) and James Johnson III (drums).  

Material for the evening emphasized Mingus' love for Duke Ellington, directly or indirectly. The group opened with "Love Chant," a relatively deep cut from Pithecanthroput Erectus, which gave everyone a chance to stretch out. Johnson is a good host who offered some good information about the pieces, which also included "Fleurette Africaine (African Flower)," a rhythm section showcase that originated on Money Jungle, the legendary meeting of Ellington, Mingus and Max Roach. 

The evening also included a few video excerpts with words from Mingus about Duke and from Ellington members talking about how a scuffle with trombonist Juan Tizol ended Mingus' brief tenure in Duke's band. I think both clips came from the film Triumph of the Underdog, though there were also clips from the black and white 1968 film Mingus about his eviction from his New York loft. The context for including the latter scene was that low point in high life was followed by a high point of the bassist getting asked to play in a jazz festival to honor his hero. 

"Us It Two" was another surprise in the set, as it was not a standard part of the Mingus canon. In fact it's relatively hard to find, appearing only on Charles Mingus and Friends In Concert. This one featured Johnson on tuba, proving, in the tradition of players like Howard Johnson and Bob Stewart, that that big old instrument can swing with the best. 

It seemed like only a matter of time before the group would play "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love," which Mingus recorded for both of his '70s albums Changes, one with vocals and one without. And it was great to hear it again. The lush ballad is a testament to the power of the bassist's later albums, which shouldn't be overlooked. Matt also got a chance to stretch out on the Changes track "For Harry Carney," the homage to Ellington's career-long baritone player.

"Open Letter to Duke" seemed like an obvious choice too, especially with Ben Opie involved, since it comes from the classic album Mingus Ah Um, one of his favorites. What is not obvious is how much the soloists on that album (tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin, alto saxophonist John Handy in the unedited version) are so crucial to that tune. In other words, it can be a challenge to pull it off. But Opie and Oguntola sounded amazing in the solo sections and the lush, slower sections. Johnson also captured the spirit of Dannie Richmond's idiosyncratic drum style, which can be hard to get right. 

Then there was "Tonight At Noon." This rapid fire melody had everyone sweating bullets and seemed like it was close to pulling the rhythm section apart from the horns. But it didn't. It was on fire the whole time. While everyone in the rhythm section stayed tough, mention should be made of Michelli's visceral approach to the piano. I've seen him do free improvisation, hulking over his instrument. He brought the same intensity to the 88s that night. The standing ovation the group received at the end of the set was well deserved, for song choice and execution.

After the set, when Opie rattled off the names of some tunes that were played in the previous shows ("Hora Decubitus," "Boogie Stop Shuffle" and a few that he said he had never played before), it filled me with a twinge of regret for missing those nights. Mark your calendars and make plans with you hear about shows! Don't miss them!

Thursday, August 31, 2023

LP Reissue Review: Cecil Taylor - Unit Structures

Where are you Bud? a lone rain falling thru doors empty of room - Jazz Naked Fire Gesture. Dancing protoplasm. Absorbs.

Cecil Taylor
Unit Structures

It can take several deep listens to really grasp a Cecil Taylor album. Gary Giddins once said something to the effect that if you listen to a Cecil performance with half an ear, you'll be lost. You need the whole ear, and the other one as well. 

One year during college, my birthday present from a close friend included a cassette dub with Cecil's other Blue Note album Conquistador on one side and Live at the Cafe Montmartre (half of what would be released as Nefertiti The Beautiful One Has Come) on the other. I immersed myself in the tape, listening repeatedly as I walked to and from campus. Eventually things started to make sense, like the recurring themes in Conquistador's title track, or noticeable the section during the second (!) piano solo in "D Trad That's What" from the other side, when Cecil and drummer Sunny Murray seem to land in 4/4 briefly, and Cecil channels Mal Waldron, if not a bit of Monk. I became a Cecil Taylor convert, not always grasping what he intended, but always eager to dive in and get closer to understanding. 

That homemade tape landed in my hands right as the CD reissue boom was taking off, and a few years later, I finally picked up Unit Structures, the other Cecil album on Blue Note. It actually preceded Conquistador's release by two years, though they were recorded within five months of each other in 1966. Unlike the later album's two sidelong tracks, Unit Structures features four dense tracks. Many Blue Note albums had liner notes by jazz luminaries ranging from Nat Hentoff to A. B. Spellman but Cecil penned "Sound Structure of Subculture Becoming Major Breath/ Naked Fire Gesture," an epic with the density of James Joyce on the back cover. (The italicized lines here are excerpted from that tome, lack of punctuation observed.) As a result, Unit Structures proves to be an even more challenging excursion with little in the way of a roadmap.

Rhythm-sound energy found in the amplitude of each time unit.

The 1987 CD's addition of an alternate take of "Enter Evening" right after the master (the standard spot for alternates on jazz reissues at the time) convoluted the flow of the original album. Even though it came at the end of side one, it was still a bit of a distraction, trying to both figure out the structure and compare the performance to the one that preceded it. 

Blue Note's Classic Vinyl Series has just reissued Unit Structures in its original vinyl form, utilizing the original analog tapes. (The mastering was done by Kevin Gray.) This isn't a Tone Poet Series reissue, so there's no gatefold cover with newly discovered candid shots of Cecil Taylor playing while Rudy Van Gelder and Alfred Lion look puzzled, or shots of Jimmy Lyons and Ken McIntyre studying lead sheets. Things are much as they were in 1966. 

When music people write about Cecil Taylor, they can almost be divided into two categories: the ones who write in very general terms or ones who go for a more metaphorical, abstract direction, talking about the music in non-musical terms, borrowing more from science than theory books. The exception might have come in a pull-out from a 1990 Village Voice piece that I held onto for years, in which several writers (beginning with Giddins) tried to explore the Taylor approach from different angles. I would re-read the thing every year, occasionally understanding more but usually wishing that I could get my hands on the albums to which they all referred. (Upon writing this thing, I need to see if I still have that crop of articles.) 

Alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons has become a devoted bandmate of Taylor by the time of Unit Structures, having played with him since 1961. Andrew Cyrille (drums) was also on his way to becoming one of the longstanding members of the Unit, playing with him from 1964 through 1975. Eddie Gale Stevens, Jr. plays trumpet on a few songs and Ken McIntyre completes the front line playing alto saxophone, oboe and bass clarinet. Holding up the rear are two bassists, Henry Grimes and Alan Silva. 

Time seen not as beats to be measured after academy's podium angle. The classic order, stone churches with pillars poised, dagger ripping skies, castratti robed in fever pitch, stuff the stale sacrament, bloodless meat, for the fastidious eye...

When playing this current reissue the first time, I tried reading the liner notes in hopes that it might reveal some insight into the music between its almost beat-like execution. Alas, it did not. Cecil seemed to really love the word "anacrusis," referring to it several times in the text. (When he recorded an album of spoken word pieces in the 1987 [Chinampas], the word that Webster defines as "a note or sequence of notes which precedes the first downbeat in a bar, " or a pick-up, factors into the first track on the album.) 

Unlike Conquistador, which seemed to have some more clearly define compositional lines, or at least passages where everyone lines up together, Unit Structures flows more freely. Everyone leaps into "Steps" at their own pace, Cyrille offering a rather thunderous bang (which seems to get some more weight, thanks to the new mastering) while everyone does calisthenics around the maestro's piano. Gale doesn't appear on this track and McIntyre plays alto, delivering a more frantic solo than the more measured though equally detailed Lyons, who takes the second solo. The piece might feel loose, but when Taylor joins Cyrille at the end of a press roll in the middle of the piece, coming down right on the pulse with him, it's obvious that the group is following a structure.

"Enter Evening (Soft Line Structures)" brings Gale into the picture, with a mute, that blends with McIntyre's oboe for a thin, reedy but intriguing sound. The two basses contribute have more presence, Silva manically bowing while Grimes plucks away. The entire performance feels unprecedented and new - more new classical than jazz of any sort - but if you zero in on Cecil's playing, his execution has moments that resemble lines of Art Tatum with random accelerations adding a twist to them.

The nearly 18-minute side two opener "Unit Structure/As Of A Now/Section" is where energy and forward motion really coalesce. Ironically, the horns (McIntyre now on bass clarinet) and drums begin the piece in a sinister mood, dark chords and rolls, only to have the mood broken by a flighty arpeggio from the piano. 

The horns sit out on "Tales (8 Wisps)." Most of the time, the basses seem to step back as well, though Silva's bow appears early in the relatively short piece. It's largely a conversation between Cecil and Cyrille. Some of the pianist's lines sound familiar; stuttered ideas that would also feed into solo performances on albums like Silent Tongues

In more recent interviews with Cyrille, he has shed some light on what he was playing with the Unit, incorporating more straightforward drumming techniques into the music. Without digging up the exact quote, suffice to say it shed light on the idea that Taylor's work didn't simply come out of nowhere. There were elements that preceded it. Lyons did play with a tone that was a direct lineage from Charlie Parker. If Bird had lived another 15 years, who knows - he might have sounded like Lyons.

Years after hearing this and Conquistador, I wrote a review of Intents and Purposes, a reissue of Bill Dixon's 1967 album on RCA. Dixon had played on Conquistador and hearing his album suddenly made me realize that Cecil's work at the time might not have existed in a vacuum. There were other "free jazz" players besides him who were pushing towards something that could not be summed up easily with words like that.  

Nearly 60 years later, it still sounds fresh and open to deep, repeated listens. And it's still hard to describe this music. This new remastered edition is the perfect opportunity to either reexamine this monolithic session or investigate it for the first time. 

As gesture Jazz became: Billie's right art bent at breast moving as light touch. Last moments, late father no use to sit and sigh the pastors have left us gone home to die.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

CD/LP Review: Tyshawn Sorey Trio - Continuing

Tyshawn Sorey Trio

Tyshawn Sorey makes listeners appreciate space - the wide open areas that can occur in music. He assures you that quick movement is not always necessary and sometimes having a lot of room in which to operate can be beneficial. By taking advantage of that type of thinking, the mind can appreciate subtle additions to the music. A slow, walking bass line feels like the basis for a strong narrative; a one-note bass line transforms into an infectious vamp, especially with a ride cymbal going behind it. 

All of these elements happen throughout the four-track album by Sorey (drums) with Aaron Diehl (piano) and Matt Brewer (bass). Like last year's Mesmerism and The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism, Continuing features the trio playing compositions aligned with classic jazz, a departure for
the drummer/composer who has carved out a reputation as a distinctly modern player who veers towards free music. But Sorey's mind is vast and when he swings, he won't take his subject matter lightly, as this new release proves.

The deft use of space and simplicity is nothing new in jazz. One musician that used it was the late pianist Ahmad Jamal, who Sorey first heard on the advice of pianist Harold Mabern, with whom the young drummer studied at William Patterson University. Works by both pianists appear on Continuing indicating the weight of their impact on Sorey's thinking. 

Jamal's "Seleritus" lasts 15 minutes, moving casually along over a simple vamp but the results are hypnotic Brewer takes an extended bass solo that almost feels free as it soars over the solid groove beneath it, rich in details. The song reaches a crescendo that never gets heavy and when the song finally fades, the trio sounds like they could continue on.

Mabern's "In What Direction Are You Headed?" originally recorded with Lee Morgan on his final studio album, gets a little funkier and perhaps a bit repetitive. But Sorey's fills add extra color to the landscape along with Diehl's high register flourishes, with both making sure the groove doesn't run out of steam.

"Angel Eyes" is a cry-in-your-hooch tune that I always thought Nick Cave could cover. It appeared on Frank Sinatra's Only The Lonely album but my personal favorite version was done by the Four Freshman on their first ...Five Trombones concept record. The Freshman harmonies never sounded as dark blue as they did on that one, aided by the horns. The Matt Dennis tune should always be sung slowly but the Sorey Trio takes it down even further, to a snail's pace. Diehl leaves wide chasms between the phrases, connected by Brewer's stark upper register quarter notes. It adds to the heartbreak of the song. 

The group also pays tribute Wayne Shorter by opening the album with his "Reincarnation Blues," which the saxophonist first played with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers.Brewer's walking bass and Diehl's subtle chords, and notes that get staggered across the beat, sets a strong scene for what will come. A mid-chorus stop-time and Sorey's press rolls feel even more dynamic as a result.

We all need to slow down once in a while. Tyshawn Sorey presents plenty of reasons why.