Thursday, January 27, 2022

My Gullible Ear Blog Post, on the Five and the Late, Great Bill von Hagen

Time to redirect you, once again, to another blog for which I have the courtesy of writing a piece once a month. Will Simmons edits  The Gullible Ear, a weekly blog in which various friends sound off on one particular song per entry. Sometimes liberties are taken by some writers and more than one song will come into play, but that's the idea. 

Lately I've been thinking back on my life as a high school freshman, the feeling coming in large part because my son is that exact same age. With each passing year, I find myself looking back on where I was when I was his age. At this point in the school year, I was coping with the loss of my great aunt, barely six months after losing her sister. Both of them were like surrogate maternal grandmothers to me, since my mom's mom had passed a year before I was born. The aunts' two room apartment, cramped as it may have been, nevertheless provided a refuge from the homefront, as well as cold cans of pop and some sort of junkfood. 

Now they were gone, which was really driven home by the one day over Christmas break when I was enlisted to help clean out their apartment. My 14-year old brain couldn't put words to the way I was feeling, but being in that apartment without either of those ladies there just seemed weird. The one amusing part of that task came when my mom found the envelopes of money that my aunt's had stashed under the refrigerator and dresser. It's funny looking back on it. But at that time, I was blasé about it, having known all along that it was there.

I've written about this time period before on this blog, and how punk rock was becoming a big part of my life. But my recent Gullible Ear entry deals with the first record by the local band the Five, which was a game changer both musically and socially. If that qualification sounds odd, just go to the link and read it.

But before you leave this page, I have to mention the second part of the post. A few days before I started writing about the Five, I heard that Pittsburgh had lost one of the driving forces of the first wave of local punk rock - Bill "Bill Bored" von Hagen. Not only that, he was a great guy too, so I had to pay my respects to him. We're losing to many folks too young. Bill was 66 and that's too damn young. 

Here's to those who have broken ground and made the city safe for next batch of musicians.

Monday, January 17, 2022

CD Review: Sara Schoenbeck - s/t

Sara Schoenbeck
Sara Schoenbeck

Sara Schoenbeck has been staring at me with one eye from the cover of her newest album, which has been sitting on a pile of music. That eye (which looks like it might be green) insists that I remember her set at Winter Jazz Fest 2020 in a duo with pianist Wayne Horvitz. It was one of those sets that was great for reasons that felt hard to put into specific words. The music was all by Horvitz, an original and fascinating composer. There have been other jazz bassoonists, but Schoenbeck had a lyrical approach that was different than others I've heard before. So from the cover of her new self-titled album, her left eye has been dropping hints. 

The eponymous disc features Schoenbeck in duets with nine other musicians, in moods that range from pensive to pointillist, with the added bonus of an indie rock cover (the one track not written by either of the people playing). If some of the duets feel easier to latch onto than others, the questionable ones provide enough musical intrigue to inspire return visits. 

To those who hear the bassoon rarely in the setting of jazz or improvisation, the huge double-reed instrument can sound like a baritone saxophone with a head cold, rich in the low end but a bit nasal. Schoenbeck smashes such misconceptions out of the gate. "O'Saris," a duet with drummer Harris Eisenstadt, begins with her growling overtones on her axe (that slang sounds appropriate considering how she plays) while her comrade punctuates the raunchy sound with toms and gentle cymbal splashes. The melody that eventually takes shape feels simple but she keeps it dynamic, at one point singing in the back of her throat while blowing. 

Together with guitarist Nels Cline, Schoenbeck interprets "Lullaby," a song originally by the slowcore band Low, who takes volume and tempo down to a very deliberate level and forces the listener to revel in the beauty of it. Jazz and indie rock can make strange bedfellows (even when one of the interpreters is the guy from Wilco who's also a free improv master) but these two know how to pull it off. 

For the first half of the eight-minute track Cline plucks the lonely notes of the chords, which almost sound like a spaghetti western, while Schoenbeck blows freely over it. When the guitarist begins strumming, five minutes in, it provides a beautiful release which, in some ways might be hard to top. Contrast is everything on this album, as the following track "Chordata" features a brief improvisation with Roscoe Mitchell that Schoenbeck describes as "the contained development of granular ideas." Her attack almost sounds like smears on a brass instrument, no small feat on a double reed.

Improvisations with Horvitz (piano, electronics) and Peggy Lee (cello) feel loose but inquisitive, while "Auger Strokes" a duet with pianist Matt Mitchell (who also wrote the piece) features a lot of open space and quick stops. Ironically (or perhaps intentionally), "Suspend a Bridge, with Lee, opens with what sounds like an amplifier buzz, but it's actually Schoenbeck, again exploring the sonic qualities of her instrument. 

The album closes with pianist Robin Holcomb playing piano and adding some vocals to her "Sugar." While things feels a little out-of-tempo at first, the bassoon quickly becomes as central to the melody as Holcomb's vocal. What was initially uncertain feels as welcoming as the melodies to "Sand Dune Trilogy," the engaging duet with flutist Nicole Mitchell, earlier in the set.  

Thursday, January 13, 2022

CD Review: Matthew Stevens - Pittsburgh

Matthew Stevens

Pittsburghers, natives or longtime residents, like to put the city down. Nothing happens here. What does happen here is lame. There's no support for new artists. (I'm not one of those people, let the record show.) Like most things, part of these comments are grounded in truth. There could be more support for upcoming artists, rather than continuing to celebrate people who are worthy but who often get all the recognition, based more on longevity. And yes - enough with the sports teams and sandwiches with French fries on them. But the locals are often more willing to sit back and complain - pandemic or no pandemic - than to go out and discover things, which once lead my wife to fashion a new slogan: Welcome to Pittsburgh. No one's going to spoon-feed you.

Visitors, on the other hand, are often enthralled with what we have to offer. There have been a number of times that musicians - of the more experimental or edgy type - have commented on how amazing it feels to play to a small-but-pretty-full room of attentive listeners on a weeknight. That isn't something that can be expected in a big place like New York City, they remind us. Combine that with our proclivity to chat with musicians after a set, making them feel like they're one of us, and it might inspire one in a small crowd to relocate here. Or else, they don't shoot down the idea when a family transition might point towards a move to the Steel City.

That kind of criteria may or may not have factored into Matthew Stevens' relocation to our fair town. (Though his wife grew up here.) But the guitarist, who has played on Esperanza Spaulding's albums Emily's D+Evolution, Exposure and 12 Little Spells, is one of us now (last time I checked) and named his set of solo works after his new home. The 11 tracks aren't necessarily inspired by sights around town, but more of a way to represent where he landed following his departure from the Big Apple and a shift from electric to acoustic guitar. 

Pittsburgh came together as something of a silver lining of a cloud. After falling off a bike and breaking his right arm, Stevens began playing his Martin 00-17 acoustic guitar as suggested therapy. The results stand up as less restorative exercises and more as a fully developed works, with the mood and scope resulting in a varied set since they changing with each track. For instance, after the long melody of "Can Am,"  built on a single string line that never stops flowing, he transitions into "Foreign Ghost," a ballad marked by gorgeous chords and strong crescendos. The low galloping bass notes in "Blue Blues" seem to carry on a conversation with the upper register melody. "Purpose of  A Machine" might attempt to sound mechanical but Stevens' arpeggios keep the strings resonating over all the octaves, suggesting something more organic. 

The vintage Martin acoustic produces string scratch on a few cuts, evoking visuals of Stevens' left hand moving around on the fretboard. But it accentuates the music rather than distracting from it. His right hand seems to have recovered well from his accident too. In closing he also deserves a hat tip for using a photo by Pittsburgh native Charles "Teenie" Harris and most importantly acknowledging the Harris Archive at the Carnegie Museum of Art. (A lot of people used Harris' legendary shots over the years without proper credit.)

Friday, January 07, 2022

2021 Turns into 2022, or Look Forward In Anger, Plus Thoughts on that Lee Morgan Box

The snow is on the ground as I type and we're almost a week into 2022. It's a snow day so the kid is doing remote learning from home and I don't have to give him a ride to school. Only now do I have a free moment to look back on the previous year of music and try to look ahead and think about how what's coming out.

I had big plans to head to New York City next week for Winter Jazz Fest and catch as many live performances as I could. Of course, that ain't happening. That virus that was supposed to magically go away, according to the last person who occupied the White House, isn't going anywhere and has been affecting more people. I say "affecting" because it keeps encroaching upon us. Even if it hasn't made someone like me sick yet (knock on wood), it's coming damn close. And it pisses me the hell off. 

The good news is, there's no shortage of music to hear and write about. I still have albums that are several months old that I would like to cover here. My particular neurosis comes when I wrestle with the idea of writing about an album that's several months old vs. skipping it altogether, feeling too late to the party and trying to focus on something newer. I'm not one to give an album a quick half-listen before I fire off a set of paragraphs about it. (Publicists and musicians might be happy to hear that.) So it takes me a while to feel like I'm ready to write. The number of times I've been thanked for detailed reviews is enough positive reinforcement to keep that approach going.

I still have five days of work at the day job before what will now be a staycation starts, and I'm trying to be strategic about how blog posts will factor into that. If I make one resolution for the year, I hope to do more blog posts throughout the year. 2021 had the lowest count on entries in a while. 

But first a look back, with some links. I was once again hit up by Francis Davis and Tom Hull to participate in their annual Jazz Critics Poll. It had a home for the last few years on the NPR website, but this year it has moved to The Arts Fuse, an online arts magazine that focuses on the Greater Boston area but also, clearly, has national coverage as well. The poll results can be found here. If you're interested in what I liked over the past year, that can be found here. Just scroll down until you see my name.

As Francis Davis points out in his opening statement, it was a year that catered to the shut-in jazz enthusiast, with a huge number of box set releases. It wasn't simply rara avis releases either. Pi Recordings released six CDs by Snark Horse, a mini orchestra lead by pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Kate Gentile, who penned a series of one-bar compositions for various configurations of that group. (I just picked that up a week ago and made my way through the whole thing a few days ago.  Intriguing stuff, though I want to revisit it to get a better handle on it. Suffice to say, it's good music to listen to while driving.)

There was more William Parker than you could shake a stick at. I didn't get to hear Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World, the bassist's 10-disc set of vocal pieces. (I've come around a bit on vocals in experimental jazz, but I'm still cautious) But his dual small group albums, Mayan Space Station and Painter's Winter were both strong sets. He also released Village Mothership, a reconvening of the trio with pianist Matthew Shipp and drummer Whit Dickey. Shipp also had a fruitful year of releases on his own and with other musicians. His good pal Ivo Perelman put out a six-disc set Brass and Ivory Tales, with a series of pianists. (I wonder if he knows that Doc Severinsen and Henry Mancini did their own Brass and Ivory album once, which was quite different from Perelman's.) That one is still waiting for me to play, not due to lack of interest but lack of time.

2021 marked the first year that the jazz cognoscenti and I all agreed on the best album of the year. I'm glad they followed my lead (heh heh) on James Brandon Lewis & Red Lily Quintet's Jesup Wagon. I've spoken about that album at length here on the blog, and was lucky enough to see Lewis live (twice!) this year (not even Francis Davis can make such a claim, as he laments n his introduction). The saxophonist deserves every bit of that recognition because he's an incredible player and composer who is just getting started. 

But there were plenty of significant historical releases that came in large packages. The Julius Hemphill box set, The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony hasn't hit my doorstep yet but I'm hoping to get ahold of it soon. (Incidentally, while I'm not opposed to downloads, listening to a big set like that simply as downloads detracts from the overall intent that the producers had when creating the package, in my opinion. It's like getting a cassette dub of Sgt. Pepper without ever seeing the cover art.) 

It was no surprise that John Coltrane's A Love Supreme Live In Seattle took top honors in Rara Avis, because.... it's John Coltrane. Sure it was a great performance (though lacking not in fidelity but in balance of instruments), but for sheer jazz sweat equity, you can't beat Roy Brooks' Understanding. Click the link for my review.

The day I bought the Coltrane set, I also decided I couldn't live without Lee Morgan's Complete Live at the Lighthouse box set. The original two-record set has a permanent spot on my shelf but I never picked up the expanded 1996 three-disc version. All the accolades about this quintet being quite possibly the best band that Morgan ever lead in his massive career were pointing in the direction of a purchase.

Many know that Blue Note released Lighthouse in vinyl and CD formats. The former is geared towards retired jazz fans, or those so well-off, they wouldn't bat an eye at the price. Who else could sink $350 on the 12-disc set? (Apparently enough people because a current check of the Blue Note website states that the set is sold out.) $80 for an eight-disc set is relatively more reasonable, and a worthy purchase at that. 

The set focuses almost exclusively on newer material that Morgan's quintet was working up, knowing that they would be recording live and didn't want to rehash music that he had already released for the label. One version of "The Sidewinder" did make it to tape, which adds some punch to what was originally a more slinky groove, giving it a fresh take. But that's a major exception.

Much of the new material was penned by Morgan's bandmates, Harold Mabern (piano), Bennie Maupin (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, flute) and Jymie Merritt (whose electric Ampeg "Baby" bass has a smooth low end almost like a bass guitar at times). In an interview with Mabern in 2004, the late pianist told me that Morgan was a leader who was open to playing a lot of music by his sideman, which is borne out by this set.

It's often said that unlike other jazz musicians, Morgan didn't exactly evolve with the times, maintaining a more traditional, acoustic sound. However, it becomes clear in listening to Lighthouse that Morgan wasn't too far removed from Davis or Freddie Hubbard for that matter, in terms of writing. Most of the pieces on the set are built on grooves, with only a slight bit of chordal movement. Mabern's "The Beehive" had a knotty melody line with stops and starts, but harmonically it was pretty straightforward. Maupin's "Something Like This" or "416 East 10th Street" might have been a little more complex, but those tracks didn't make it onto the original album. "Neophilia" did, and Maupin's deliberate piece, with bass clarinet and flugelhorn, gathers a lot of exciting even as it moves as a slow pace. 

If you compare this to Hubbard's Straight Life, which was recorded for CTI just a few months later, the only difference is electric piano, as that album's title track is also a 16-minute vamp with solos. No one will mistake Morgan's group for Miles Davis' group but Morgan clearly had an eye (or an ear) to use a simple structure and get more out of it. 

In closing, the title of this entry is a bit of a hat tip to Mort Sahl, who we lost in 2021. The first album I ever bought by that wiseguy comedian was called 1960 or Look Forward In Anger. As long as there are idiots out there who disregard the safety of their neighbors in favor of their own convenience, the anger will continue. But so will the music. So keep listening.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

A Look Back at 2021 Albums on Aerophonic with Dave Rempis

In spite of everything, 2021 could be considered a productive year for Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis. His Aerophonic imprint released a handful of physical CDs of various projects that came together over the prior year, with some from the early part of this year as well. Of the discs discussed here, two came out early in 2021, one dropped just a few months ago and one isn't officially out yet, though Rempis has offered pre-orders on the Aerophonic site. The final days of the year always serve as a good time to both look back at what came out and look ahead to what's coming. Incidentally, the site is offering a special deal through the end of this month - 3 in-print CDs for $30, with a special deal for a vinyl edition of the Rempis/ Ra album.

Rempis - Reid- Abrams - Daisy - Damon
Solos, Duos & Trios - The COVID Tapes

Like many musicians, Dave Rempis (alto, tenor, baritone) had his livelihood put on hold when the country went into lockdown in early 2020. One thing to remedy the situation was the weekly release of digital Aerophonic albums that featured recordings from various projects dating back over 20 years. Each release was launched with a live solo performance from his practice space. The COVID Tapes features six of those solos interspersed with performances in duos and trios that happened later that year in live outdoor shows. 

The two discs offer a revealing profile of Rempis' musical scope. Known more as a cutting edge free improvisor (as revealed by some of the other releases included here), he's clearly in touch with tradition too. The solo pieces range from Joe McPhee's bluesy "Knox" to standards like "The Song Is You," "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Just a Gigolo." These tracks  are compact, none lasting much more than six minutes each. Faithful to the original tunes, he zeros in on what makes them so essential, adding his personal touch to them.

The live performances stretch things further, with the various groups getting time to open up, explore the space and use it to their advantage. Rempis mentions in the liner notes how doesn't relish outdoor performances, due to sonic limitations. Yet he sounds comfortable moving from spare long tones to a more developed piece with drummer Tim Daisy. A trio with cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Joshua Abrams captures his alto darting around the foundation set by the lower strings. Drummer Tyler Damon sets up an aggressive mix of trap kit and sustained percussion rings (almost sounding like two players going at once) and Rempis responds with the most aggressive performance of the album, bending and wailing notes. These recordings lack any major post-production work (and include faint street sounds like barking dogs and a truck's back-up noise if you listen closely), but the immediacy of the music makes any sound "improvements" unnecessary.


The Rempis Percussion Quartet
Sud Des Alpes

The Rempis Percussion Quartet gets its name from the fact that it includes two drummers (Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly) in addition to bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Rempis. Together since 2004, they create a sound where the two drummers work together and sound like one, even in the freest situations, never overpowering the rest of the group. In fact, Rempis' tenor saxophone is the loudest element in the music on the freewheeling "Late Arrival," second only to Flaten. 

The three tracks on Sud Des Alpes comes from a 2019 performance in Geneva. While all of these albums offer a good introduction to Rempis' saxophone style, this one presents one of the most compelling. He begins opener "There's a Jam On the Line" (a title inspired by the group's delayed travel by train) with visceral growls, and moves on to include fragments of melody, heavy vibrato and overtones, moving from each one for a fascinating voice. The group plays the Art Ensemble of Chicago's "Theme for Yoyo," beginning it just as spontaneously, it seems, before moving into a drum break and - eventually - their own furious groove.

All Your Ghosts In One Corner

Kuzu brings Rempis together again with drummer Taylor Damon and adds guitarist Tashi Dorji. The latter makes a strong addition to this group's uninhibited free improv sound with a sonic palette that ranges from wild skronk to mutant surf tones, going from twang and buzz. It makes a perfect third element to go along with Rempis' altissimo shrieks and Damon's thundering clatter. For what it's worth, Dorji is probably also the reason that this album wound up on my Best of 2021 list. (They also released an album for Astral Works earlier in the year, The Grand Delusion.)

"Scythe" is a 40-minute performance recorded at Chicago's Elastic Arts at the end of a March 2020 tour, just as things were starting to close down everywhere. The continuous performance is divided into three tracks, breaking where the dynamics shift reach a fevered pitch. Catching a band at the end of a tour usually means hearing at them when they can get involved in a deep discussion, and "Scythe" is no exception. Dorji's harmonics or quick exclamations add punch to the alto wails. In part two, an oud-like tone turns out to be a loop and some fast strumming comes out of nowhere to land on top of it. The drum solo sections could continue for another couple minutes and not loose any momentum. Rempis begins on alto, switching to tenor in the second part and rips up the final section with some monstrous baritone work. 

The extended performance is bookended by two shorter tracks recorded one night later in Milwaukee. They serve as a good preview and comedown after "Scythe." "One Fell Swoop" features a lot of heavy drum rolls, wide vibrato and guitar twangs, coalescing more like a composed piece than a spontaneous one. "Year of the Rat" features more baritone madness against a relatively spare groove that comes from percussives and fretwork. Maybe "comedown" isn't quite accurate in this case as this one can knock you backwards.

Dave Rempis/Avreeayl Ra Duo

After the grit and growl that capped off All Your Ghosts In One Corner, the sax/drums duets on Bennu feel relatively subdued. But that is far from a bad thing. The three tracks, recorded in February 2021, find two friends getting together after not having played with anyone throughout the winter season. It also feels like they're waking from a musical hibernation in real time, Ra laying down grooves on his kit, with cowbells adding to the sound along with the low-pitched toms. Rempis often gives him space before he begins to blow.

At the start of the 20-minute "Divisions of Time" Ra plays with mallets, freely moving around the kit, singing wordlessly, capturing the spirit of being able to play again. After the free intro, in which Rempis eventually enters on alto, Ra goes into a low volume groove that sustains, with slight variation, for the whole piece. It feels hypnotic after awhile, which makes the repetition and low dynamics rewarding in the end. 

The album opens with "Persea" which gives Rempis a chance to show off a beefy tenor tone, slipping in some growls on the side. "Fire and Ash" also features his tenor over a rolling sound of toms and tight snare, moving at a deliberate but focused pace.

Rempis and Ra took the name Bennu from an ancient Egyptian deity or symbol that created itself out of darkness at the beginning of time, much like the Phoenix in Greek mythology. Considering when this music was created, the name makes a good comparison. 

Bennu will be officially released in January 2021, but Aerophonic is already shipping advance orders - especially ones on a gray/blue ripple-colored vinyl - now. In case you missed mention of it earlier in this piece, the label is offering a special 3 for $30 deal on any in-print CDs. 

Monday, December 27, 2021

A Salute to Mary Jo Coll


There's a lot of sadness in Pittsburgh right now. We lost Mary Jo Coll, a truly badass woman who booked shows at Howlers and Hambone's, two clubs that were shuttered in the past year or so. Jo, or Mama Jo as she was often called, gave a lot of bands a break. believing in them when the bands might not have been too sure about themselves. If the band was pulling their weight, plugging their show and putting everything they had into their performance, they got her approval. If the cash register wasn't ringing constantly with hordes of drunks, no problem. Maybe next time. And as one friend put it, you still might be good enough to play on a Thursday night, opening for a band from Cincinnati.

Jo went into the hospital not too long ago with stomach pains and "came out with stomach cancer," as she posted on Facebook. Without much in the way of health insurance, friends rallied around and staged a benefit for her earlier this month at The Funhouse at Mr. Smalls. 

Originally there was talk of doing it at a later date, but it was pushed up. She wanted to be there and the photo at the top of this page is from that night. I got in as one of the last paying customers before it was sold out. Karla Doolittle, who organized the event, snapped this photo of the two of us. I wanted to talk to Jo but I didn't want to overwhelm her either. She looked weary but appreciative. So I gave her a hug and kissed her on the forehead. I hoped that would express my feelings for her. 

She was a really generous person, which is even more impressive because she didn't have a whole lot herself. Many times, I saw posts on Facebook about a bunch of food that she was cooking up at her home. "Who's coming over," she'd ask. I wanted to drop by or meet her for coffee sometime just to chaw. She was older than me, but just by 10 years, making her more like a big sister than the "Mama" that she might be to other musicians. Along with music, we would occasionally talk family stuff, which seemed to deepen the rapport between us. And she was never one to say "No" to a show request. If the date I hoped to land wasn't open, she'd have a counter offer. There was never any hard sell, any warning that we needed to draw a big crowd or else. It's all about having a good time. 

I can recall at least one show at Howlers where she corralled all the band members at the start of the evening to lay down the rules. All of it was reasonable (get the door person your guest list, no extra drink tickets, etc.). Once that was out of the way, she wanted to make sure everyone had fun. Then she'd park herself at the end of the bar where it turned a corner so she's see everyone who went into the music room. 

For Jo's 60th birthday, she organized a show with a bunch of bands playing music from the '60s, specifically music that came from the Nuggets garage rock compilations. The Love Letters were lucky enough that we got on that bill. It just so happens the show took place the night before the 45th presidential inauguration. In other words, the day before the world was about to get a little darker. (Karl Hendricks would also pass away that night.) We could all sense the change for the worse that was coming (though we had no idea how bad it would be). 

Jo wasn't going to let that ruin her party. She barged onstage in the middle of our set to make a few announcements and thank yous. With all of that out of the way, she issued a decree: "Let's have a good time. Let's forget all the other bullshit that's goin' on right now. Tomorrow is another day. For tonight - fuck the bullshit. Let's have fun."

We did, and it lasted all night. 

Thanks, Jo. I'm sorry I never brought you coffee, but we'll have it someday. 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

LP Reviews: Bridge of Flowers - A Soft Day's Night/ ATTITUDE! - Pause and Effect

Of course, ESP-Disk' has always been about more than just avant-garde jazz. It's very likely that some fans of Beat-poets-turned-songsmiths the Fugs, primitive rockers the Godz or folkies Pearls Before Swine might have memorized those bands' albums for the label while knowing Albert Ayler or Sonny Simmons in name only. Throughout the label's original run in the '60s and early '70s, founder Bernard Stollman released everything from bluegrass to... whatever the hell you would consider the band Cromagnon. (Don't underestimate MIJ the Yodeling Astrologer either.)

Part of the label's current agenda includes a Drive to Revive Weird Rock. (The capitalization comes from the label.) The project began in 2019 with Painted Faces' Tales from the Skinny Apartment and continued last year with OPTO S's Human Indictive/Live. Two new vinyl/download releases continue the weird, with one of them simultaneously sharing space with the label's jazz canon.


Bridge of Flowers
A Soft Day's Night

Don't let the lampoon of a Beatles song turn you off. Bridge of Flowers are a band made for ESP. They don't sound tight in the traditional sense, but these guys are tuned in with one another and create music that feels tight, even when it might sound like the lead guitar is playing a different song ("Aloe Vera") or one of the strings on Shane Bruno's bass could use a tuning. Things never fall apart on A Soft Day's Night - unless these four lads want it to. Things crumble during the climax of "Year Without A Summer" but the mood calls for a dramatic slow down like that. 

Bridge of Flowers reminds me of many bands I've had the pleasure of sharing the stage with, especially in those days before Nevermind came along. These bands never had any regard for the Big Time. Instead they channeled everything into having a memorial 45-minute performance. If a string broke, no problem. If the audience was indifferent, that was their problem. There was rock to be had, if you were smart enough to listen. 

The production on A Soft Day's Night even feels like the mix at such a live show or, even better, at a basement party. Jeff Gallagher's vocals sound like they're coming through an amp that doubles as a vocal p.a. It could have been boosted a bit more in the mix, but it makes curious ears listen closer to try to figure out what "Vinegar and Salt" or "Tambo" are all about.. (Since this entry was originally posted, I found that the album includes a lyric sheet.) The instruments themselves are captured as they were, with little post-production, making these ten songs feel like they could be happening in front of you.

The Massachusetts band has (only) been around since 2016, but had they existed in New York a decade and a half earlier, they probably would have wound up on Shimmy-Disc, who would have provided a perfect home for their lo-fi garage rock. Maybe they would have hit the road and come to town for a show that a select few would be talking about years later. These days, it's hard to tell if the band is a local project that doesn't stray from their backyard or if, someday when it's safe, they might play on a Wednesday night in your town. In the meantime, it's best to get in on the ground floor and dig it. 

Pause and Reflect

The trio ATTITUDE! wants to be part of both styles of ESP. Side One of Pause and Effect presents them as a noise trio ranting against sexual stereotypes and racism, the pandemic and politics. The flip features a side-long track of flowing free jazz improvisation. They excel in both situations.

All three women in the group hail from different Asian countries. Guitarist/pianist Rose Tang is a Mongol from Sichuan. Tenor saxophonist Ayumi Ishito hails from Japan. Drummer Wen-Tin Wu was born in Taiwan. Each plays in a numerous other projects in New York. Pause and Reflect happened after they came together to play one song at an event. ESP, knowing their individual works, wanted an album.

Tang, who does most of the vocals, makes it clear that she has no tolerance for submissive Asian stereotypes in "Who Flung Dung." "Flames with No Names" salutes Asian protesters (she was there at Tiananmen Square) with honesty and immediacy. As she attacks her guitar, Ishito and Wu weave around her words, integrating with them rather than filling up the background. The saxophone especially acts as punctuation to the spoken performance. "Gimme the Mic," something of an opening manifesto, finds Tang positing, "The world is a theater of the absurd. The space?" Her bandmates immediately answer that question with her: "Ours!" In "8 Steps/7 O'Clock," those bandmates step up the mic following some thrash jazz that morphs into free percussion with echo-heavy vocals. 

For "Conversation," a 24-minute track, Tang switches to piano. Other than some wordless vocalizing at certain points, the trio becomes a free improvisation group. Things are loose but directed. Ishito avoids wild shrieking in favor of a more contemplative flow of lines, often in the midrange. Wu plays in waves that complement Tang's cascading lines. Not since Patty Waters' Sings has ESP presented two vastly different sides of one performer on an album. Although a comparison like that says more about ESP's everlasting sense of adventure than it does about ATTITUDE!, who proudly proclaim they're "starting a revolution with culture."