Monday, July 08, 2024

CD Review: Travis Reuter - Quintet Music

Travis Reuter
Quintet Music (self-released)

Birds of Fire was the first Mahavishnu Orchestra album I ever heard. Two-thirds of the way through, I turned it off. That was close to two decades ago, so details are a little fuzzy. But I think I gave up around "Sanctuary" in large part because it felt like four out of the five musicians were playing the equivalent of 1-2, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3, 1-2 in tandem and it just felt too rigid. And hyper.  John McLaughlin fans will cut me some slack, I hope. My assessment is more metaphorical than literal. Besides I'm telling you that story to tell another one.

The fuzzy memory of Birds of Fire came back to me while listening to Quintet Music, the second album by Travis Reuter.  No one, including this writer, will mistake the guitarist for a McLaughlin apostle, but he does write some particularly knotty compositions that divide his quintet into various sections, with bass and drums playing together in a choppy but taut manner, while tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, vibraphonist Peter Schlamb and Reuter himself play melodies or improvisations (or both, maybe) in front of them. There are times when the guitar and vibes shift to foundational support too. Shim frequently plays in the lower range, adapting his tone to the point where he almost sounds like he's playing a baritone. 

Bassist Haris Raghavan has the herculean task of bouncing between the front line and locking in with drummer Tyshawn Sorey. A striking example of this comes in "Same Song," when he and Schlamb ever so briefly join forces and create a cluster that sounds like an old school pinball bumper being hit by the ball. Sorey, who often takes other composers' convoluted tempos and helps our ears make sense of them, almost does the opposite on this session. His parts sound busy, pushing hard against the rest of the group and often making it hard to latch onto the music.

There's no sin in writing or playing that way, of course. Tension can be fun. In "#13 F34," Schlamb begins by soloing over Reuter's ringing chords; by the end, they switch roles. "#9 Low/High 1" starts with a clear guitar line, which Raghavan echoes, while Sorey goes wild over. The piece, one of only two that go beyond the seven-minute mark, switches to a different setting after two-and-a-half minutes but returns to the initial part at the end.

Most of the pieces stay below five minutes; Reuter, Shim and Schlamb each also get an interlude with the rhythm section, all of them coming in under two minutes. The brevity proves Reuter doesn't try to overpower his band with too many ideas. "#8 D@z" keeps it single length (3:18) yet still manages to have Shim and Schlamb trade solos back and forth. 

But "Fast Louis," which comes next, begins with little variation in terms of dynamics. It could be the same track. Granted, the whole piece (the other extended track) ultimately has more space instead of cramming it with caffeinated ostinatos and lines. Yet, the 10 tracks on Quintet Music starts to run together after awhile. Finding the subtleties between them requires a deep dive. Sorey's drums occasionally sound as if the depth of his parts isn't captured as clearly as it could have been, which might take away from the group. There were times when I wanted to see this band in person, to see how they bring this music together. That setting could bring out nuances that the speakers only hint at. It also makes me curious to hear Reuter's 2012 debut Rotational Templates, which utilized electric piano instead of vibes.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Dish It Out: Remembering James Chance

The Contortions, on the No New York compilation.
Chance is pictured top left.

Before John Zorn, before Eric Dolphy, before even Charlie Parker, the alto saxophonist that fascinated me was James Chance. I took up the alto in tenth grade and while I was starting to get into jazz, I hadn't bought much jazz other than Bitches Brew and Albert Ayler's Vibrations (which I bought within about a week of each other). Most of my record purchases were punk rock. James Chance bridged the gap between that style and jazz. In fact, he kind of bridged the gap between Bitches Brew and Vibrations. 

It all comes rushing through the speakers in opening seconds of "Dish It Out," the opening track by the Contortions on the No New York compilation. Jody Harris bangs out a trebly guitar chord, which gets answered by George Scott's rubbery bass. Then Chance starts wailing in the upper register of his horn. Forget melody or harmony. It almost sounds like James chooses certain fingerings on the horn, rather than the pitch it produces. He certainly feels the groove his band is playing, which eventually includes Pat Place's yowling slide guitar and Adele Bertei's organ, which to my ears has always been a beautiful evocation of thunder and lightening. While Chance's horn sounds "wrong" on purpose, Bertei's keys seem to do something more deliberately against the grain.

Chance's vocals on the track might have been inspired by James Brown but his execution seems more like a pissed off dad. It'd be a few years before Ian MacKaye would front Minor Threat and make this level of hostility into a common vocal style. In 1978, no one sounded this rabid. 

Speaking of James Brown, the Contortions final track on No New York was a cover of the Godfather's "I Can't Stand Myself." According to Bertei (I think it's in her memoir but I definitely read it online), the group had never played the song before and ran through it as a soundcheck in the studio. It chugs along on one chord, bolstered by a Harris guitar solo that tries to force a chord change (doesn't happen), climaxing with an abrasive wail from the singer that cues an equally shrill sax solo. 

Could he really play, my innocent mind wondered. The only way to find out was to check out everything. Buy by Contortions. Sax Maniac by his later group, James White and the Blacks. Off-White by the same group. Some of them were pretty good. Some felt a little jokey in a dry sort of way. ("Stained Sheets" in which Lydia Lunch moaned over the phone to an incredulous, hostile James.) But what  was impressive was the way his band, which at times included trombonist Joseph Bowie (brother of Lester, of the Art Ensemble of Chicago), would sound like they were just riffing away but all of a sudden they'd reach a stop-time like clockwork. 

Chance put together a new version of the Contortions in the early '90s, following the re-release of Buy on Henry Rollins' Infinite Zero label. He came to Pittsburgh, playing at Luciano's Coffeehouse, which once existed down the street from Duquesne University. The backing band seemed just a tad slick (the bassist had a six-string bass) but Chance was his usual self, blowing the high F on his horn, shooting down to the low B-flat and then flopping around in the middle. It might have sounded raw or primitive but this was his thing, his sound. Notorious for picking fights with audience members in New York, he claimed at the time he had sworn off that, after one incident damaged his suit. However, a friend who was at that show claimed on Facebook this week that Chance slugged him when he got too close to the stage.

Only today did I discover, through an obit, that the saxophonist studied with the World Saxophone Quartet's David Murray prior to forming the Contortions. Chance spoke to me when I was writing a feature on Joseph Bowie for JazzTimes in 2016, an interview that had been about three decades in the making. Hailing from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he had a love of both the Stooges and jazz of all stripes and had wanted to combine the two.

Upon arriving in New York in 1975, he immersed himself in the loft scene, playing with the Bowie brothers and drummer Charles "Bobo" Shaw. "One thing I liked about those guys is they had an obvious information of rhythm and blues in their playing," he said in our phone conversation. "Even though they were mostly playing free, a lotta times it would go into funk rhythms, even though… at the La MaMa [Theater, in the East Village], they didn’t even have a bass player usually. Or even any rhythm besides drums." He went on to talk about saxophonist Henry Threadgill and trumpeter Ted Daniel playing in James White and the Blacks. 

During the conversation, it started to become clear that Chance's sound on the alto, as raw as it seemed, was a conscious choice to make him distinct in a scene of players. He might not have been playing straight - or even avant garde - jazz, but he knew it was important to have his own sound to set him apart. 

Chance's last performance seems to have been pre-pandemic, according to the obit linked in his Instagram page,  March 2019 in Utrecht. More recently, a gofundme campaign was started to help him deal with medical bills. When he and I talked in 2016, he mentioned that someone in Pittsburgh had expressed interest in bringing him back to town, but unfortunately it didn't happen. Chance (who was born James Siegfried) died on June 18, 2024, though cause of death was not disclosed at the time. 

Thanks, James. 

Sunday, May 26, 2024

CD Reviews: Matthew Shipp Trio - New Concepts in Piano Trio Jazz, Rich Halley - Fire Within

Some time last year, I hatched a plan to write a piece about ESP-Disk's reissue of Matthew Shipp's 1990 debut album, Circular Temple, in tandem with his then-new solo piano disc The Intrinsic Nature of Matthew Shipp (Mahakala). The blog post was also going to discuss music journalist Clifford Allen's book Singularity Codex - Matthew Shipp on RogueArt, which covered his subject's extensive releases on that French imprint and offered insight into the pianist's work through interviews with people who have played with him, recorded him and released his work. For whatever reason - procrastination, malaise over the state of jazz journalism in early 2023, worry that I couldn't find a way to talk about Shipp's work - the piece never materialized. 

The good thing about Matthew Shipp is that, despite any talk that he might retire, his studio output has yet to slow down. Here we are with two examples.

Before we get to that, a few words about Allen's book, which is still as relevant today as it was in 2023. At just over 200 pages, with slightly less than half of it devoted to examinations of Shipp's RogueArt albums, Singularity Codex still delivers a good look at the pianist as a whole. Discussions with bassist William Parker, saxophonist Rob Brown and guitarist/bassist Joe Morris come in strict Q&A layouts, which can sometimes make assumptions about the readers' background knowledge and skip on details. But Allen makes sure details are covered. 

Some of the conversations might get into minutiae, but presumably, the people picking up the book are Shipp fans who enjoy that. Considering how Shipp can be a little reticent in interviews (his voice only appears in the back cover endorsement), the words of his peers  make up for it. The third section, on the albums themselves, might even make the reader want to find a particular session that is not already on their personal shelf. 


Matthew Shipp Trio
New Concepts in Piano Trio Jazz

If the title of the latest disc by Shipp's piano trio seems a little bold, it follows a trajectory of some of his previous ones, like the aforementioned Intrinsic Nature of Matthew Shipp or The Conduct of Jazz (2015) and a track called "When the Curtain Falls on the Jazz Theatre" (from 2009's Harmonic Disorder). But it also holds true in describing the eight performances on the album. 

One of the new concepts seems to be the approach drummer Newman Taylor Baker takes on in the band. On this session, he comes off as a master of restrain and someone who fills in the background cautiously and freely. In a few tracks, his contributions seem limited to a few cymbal crashes or washes. There have been numerous drummers who have played freely behind the piano and drums, but Baker's performance often sounds closer to a third voice, rather than a rhythmic instrument.

"Sea Song" begins with 34 seconds of brushes on drum heads, nearly impossible to hear at first. When Shipp and bassist Michael Bisio join him, Baker continues to act as the waves drifting in the background, only getting a bit more animated in the last couple minutes.. Bisio, playing below his instrument's usual range, comes off like a rugged on hull on the high seas. Shipp doesn't stick to a set of changes, but flows with a continuous set of ideas that also evoke the openness of the sea. 

A steady walking bass in "The Function" gives Shipp and Baker room to spin whatever ideas strike them. The pianist casually throws in some Monk-like filigrees and accents and some of his signature low-end, sustained strikes, all of them usually lasting a few brief bars. Meanwhile Baker seems to tinker with his kit, tapping out ideas and leaving space wide open between them. 

To be clear, none of these qualities detract from the power of the album. If anything, they add a level of intrigue. The upper strata of this intrigue is of course Shipp, who continues on a musical path that becomes more idiosyncratic as he goes. He and Bisio have worked together so closely that the sparse movement of "Tone IQ" sounds full. "Brain Work" is a detailed solo piano piece, beginning with notes collapsing onto one another without any feeling of clutter. It actually feels like one large idea that requires three minutes to play. 

"Coherent System" is the album's closing epic, at 11 minutes significantly longer than the 10 preceding tracks. It constantly morphs into different shapes, with tempos rising and falling naturally. Baker takes a cue from the low end of the piano and plays on the snare almost like a march. Without much transition, Shipp into waltz time, before returning to the march, stopping at some point to add a classical flourish.

If it all sounds a little hard to imagine, that is because a piano trio has never come off this way before.

Rich Halley
Fire Within

Tenor saxophonist Rich Halley resides in Portland, Oregon where he has worked extensively as a band leader (releasing 25 albums) and founder of the state's Creative Music Guild. He has also played Vinny Golia, Nels Cline and Andrew Hill, to name a few. Fire Within is his third album with all three members of the Matthew Shipp Trio (following 2020's The Shape Of Things). All five tracks are credited to each player, which implies that this was a spontaneous session, although there are moments where Halley hits on a line that could be a pre-determined theme.

He opens the title track with a lick that acts as a fanfare and when the group joins him, there's no doubt that Shipp is the pianist, performing his familiar staccato dance on the keys, as Bisio and Baker roll behind him. This is no session where the trio bends to the wishes of the leader. Baker, quiet on the previous album, comes alive with a solo on this track that relies on drama and dynamics and builds to a crescendo. 

While things definitely feel free and unwound at times, these moments are balanced by tracks like "Angular Logic" where Shipp's chordal vamp moves in tandem with Halley, whose rich tone builds to frantic levels. "Through Still Air," where Bisio's high bowing meets Halley on an even level, almost feels like a ballad, but something unsuspecting is in the water. There might be an old standard quote courtesy of Halley, and the whole piece ultimately brings Andrew Hill to mind. 

The quartet excels best in the longer pieces where they take time to work through ideas. "Inferred" is one of the best, beginning with a bass solo that starts in a contemplative mood, working into a mournful tune before Shipp creates a tornado and lifts Halley up, going through different shapes before returning to the pensive feeling from early in the track. 

Fire Within has a different set up than New Concepts In Piano Trio Jazz but Shipp's unique approach is still recognizable. It's also nice to hear him in the company of a strong tenor saxophonist like Halley again.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Messthetics & James Brandon Lewis Lift the Bandstand; Thoughts on Steve Albini

The past week was filled with some sad music news, not to mention a personal deadline to write about a particular jazz box set. But the week began with some really uplifting music, so our story is going to begin there. 

The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis album on Impulse! has been in heavy rotation at home since it came out in March so the anticipation for the group's return to Pittsburgh was pretty high. When they came to Club Café last year, Lewis played a set with his trio and then joined the Messthetics for the end of theirs. But on Monday, May 6, the quartet was onstage the whole time.  

Punk rock and jazz have come together before several times. Saccharine Trust began as an arty punk band who went on to meld beat poetry and jazz riffs, before members of that band went on to form Universal Congress Of, who went even more in a mostly instrumental, improvisational direction. But both of those bands were heavy on feeling, which made up for a more primal approach to improvisation.

The Messthetics feature Joe Lally (bass) and Brandon Canty (drums), the rhythm section of one of the best known punk bands of all time - Fugazi. It's not an exaggeration to say that, since the band set a gold standard for honesty and integrity with their music, which inspired legions of musicians. Guitarist Anthony Pirog straddles all kinds of styles of jazz and rock. James Brandon Lewis is, quite simply, one of the most inventive tenor saxophonists around right now. 

With all four of these guys together, it's like a confluence of punk rock and jazz. That's obvious, but when they hit on Monday, suddenly there were no musical boundaries, no need to put a label on what they do, no chance to boil it down into easy to digest categories. If you have to ask, you'll never understand.

Sure, that's not exactly true. But the excitement that these guys delivered was on par with what Fugazi gave us, combined with the rich harmonic ideas that Lewis' Red Lily Quintet plays. There were times when Lewis was honking at the low end of his tenor, but it wasn't like the bar walking tenor players of bygone days, who were simply honking to get a reaction out of inebriated listeners. "The Time Is the Place" had urgency in the tenor solo, like Lewis had a message or an emotion he wanted to unleash. He knew what we needed

"That Thang," as the name might imply, had a hearty funk groove, backed up by some equally heavy chord work. Pirog's harmonic approach was also a quality that gave things an extra kick, with chords or melodies that expanded the sound. Canty's trademark bell, mounted on a cymbal stand, sat quiet for much of the set but when it was struck, you felt it. 

Lally was not a flashy player ,but he was solid, keeping it together with Canty, who rocked more than swung, which served the music well. As they were barreling through "Fourth Wall," which is built largely on a repeating figure that kind of stretches a triple meter over a backbeat, it occurred to me that this was probably what the MC5 was trying to do years ago, after listening to Coltrane and Sun Ra and hoping to incorporate their ideas into their music. Only this time, there were more than good intentions going on here. These cats have the vision and the skill to really pull it off and write the next chapter. 

Canty was the voice of the group, offering introductions and general info between songs. When one fellow in a corner of Club Café kept yelling out enthusiastic compliments, the drummer kept the mood positive and asked his name. "Steve," Canty told him upon learning it, "we love you." No lectures, no shushing, just love. It added to the camaraderie of the show and we all felt a little more connected to Steve. 

The local trio Else Collective opened the evening. Their guitar/bass/drums set up started off minimal and tense, with counter grooves making it a challenge to find a downbeat, if there really was a proper one. Parts of it sounded a little too rigid, but most of their pieces tended to open up as they continued, and that's when they created some heat. 

When a friend texted me that Steve Albini had died this week, I almost hit the floor. It wasn't that I was the hugest Albini fan or that I had some wild encounter with him somewhere along the way. I actually had mixed feelings about him as a person. He knew a lot about the music industry and wasn't afraid to call people out who he knew were shysters. 

He didn't suffer fools, but he didn't suffer the uninformed either. I still remember him getting prickly with a local writer who dared to use the word "producer" in relation to his work on an album. And Steverino ripped into him. He loathed being called a producer, believing that producers are the people who take over recording sessions and try to change a band's sound to fit someone else's needs. (I"m paraphrasing here.) I could see what he meant, but having dealt with so many indie rock folks that fly off the handle due to semantics, the response made me eyes roll a little.

Of course, I made sure other people knew how he felt about it too, if there were times that the p-word came up in relation to him. 

But there was that sound Albini created. It had the immediacy of a band playing in a basement party (to me, the ideal setting), with added clarity. Everything was alive and leaped out at you. Whether you wanted it coming at you was your choice.  The first artist that comes to mind is not Nirvana. It's PJ Harvey. I was both terrified and intrigued by "Rid of Me," which ends with her singing a capella, like she's gasping for breath after being held under water. 

When it comes to the whole "producing" thing, Shimmy-Disc founder/musician Kramer had the best take on it, posted on Instagram this week: "Steve was always right, about everything......with one very important exception: all that nonsense he loved to spout about not being a record producer. What a complete load of horse shit. Any debate over the evidence supporting that statement would just seem like comedy, to me. Artists trusted him, and he returned their trust by protecting them from harm in the studio. He did so simply by making sure that their recordings sounded like who they actually were. Sure, maybe it begins with "engineering", but...THAT, is 'producing.'"

The idea behind that is what breaks my heart. Albini, might have seemed like a self-righteous, smug little pud, but he cared. He really cared. He was committed to protecting artists from becoming what they weren't. Sometimes when you care about something, it might seem like you're on a mission, which not everyone understands, and it gets frustrating, so you lash out. And Albini realized that he was a jagoff, confessing to it in a now famous article from The Guardian last year. You rarely see that kind of honesty anymore.

But what's really sobering is that the guy was a mere 61 years old and died of a heart attack. That is too damn close to where I am now. It could happen to any of us tomorrow. I hope it doesn't. The world needs us.

Now go start your own band. And go to other people's gigs too.

Wednesday, May 01, 2024

GBV in Pittsburgh, April 27

GBV vocalist Robert Pollard, with drummer Kevin March and guitarist Doug Gillard
While waiting to get through the security check point at Mr. Small's on Saturday, my friend Tim and I met a couple of polite gents from Ottawa who had traveled to our fair town to see Guided By Voices. One of them asked how many times we'd seen them. I rolled my eyes and tried to think of an answer, and one of our new friends took that to mean "too many times to get an accurate number." But that wasn't the case. I just couldn't recall how long it's been since I last saw them. 

Checking past blog entries, the only show mentioned is the 2014 appearance, where Death of Samantha opened for them. I know I saw them at least once more before the pandemic. There was the one night I was milling through the crowd, scoop pad in my hand, writing down song titles, and two people asked me, "Are you [Post-Gazette writer] Scott Mervis?" At least they recognized my line of work.

Whenever the last show was, I recall GBV figurehead Robert Pollard seeming really snockered (more so than usual) but being impressed that the set ended after exactly 90 minutes, as he predicted. It was a good night of music, but his rambling between-song patter, coupled with the wall-to-wall GBV bros, made me wonder if I needed to see them again. The last GBV album I bought was....good. But I haven't been compelled to pull it off the shelf for a couple years.

Last Saturday, April 27, peer pressure started to weigh on me. (Though the peers that talked about going are actually much younger than me.) Besides, live shows give you something that you don't get sitting at home, listening while doing something else or nodding off in your easy chair. 

Mr. Pollard and the band delivered too. By the time the houselights and the p.a. music came on, approximately 135 minutes had passed since their set began. Pollard definitely had a few in him before he hit the stage (and speaking of hitting, he also took a drag off a joint that was passed to him by an audience member, after talking about the good old days of doing drugs at shows), but the desire to rock hard overpowered the desire to fall into his cups and perform that way. If you're going to sing for that long, even with breaks, it's important to maintain stamina and pace oneself, and Pollard did.

The set, naturally, cut a wide path through the band's songbook. Several Bee Thousand songs were pulled up, along with a few others from their days on Matador Records. If I was a good journalist, I might have kept count of how many songs they played, but it was hard enough maintain a spot in the crowd, amidst all the dudes raising index fingers and beer cans in the air when recognizing a song. (They'd kill me for saying this, but the way the diehard fans reacted to lyrics reminded me of the time I saw the Indigo Girls and members of the audience were acting out the words to songs.) 

But I shouldn't disparage some guys who were merely having the time of their lives. No one was slamming into innocent bystanders. And, thankfully, no dudes were groping ladies during the set, at least not what I saw. (I heard reports of that at prevous shows.)

Parts of the set took me back to seeing GBV in late 1993 at the CMJ Music Marathon, just prior to the release of Bee Thousand. There was a lot buzz surrounding the band and hoi polloi like Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore were in the audience. Onstage the music made me think of an indie rock take of A Hard Day's Night. Everything was short, concise and amazing. Last week, it was fascinating to hear so many songs all in a row, all sounding tight and well-written, all of them sequenced in the set so they didn't blend together or sound like "just another GBV song." Running order is crucial in these cases, and GBV takes that seriously.

The evening also reminded me of seeing GBV mainstay Doug Gillard's band Gem a few years later at CMJ, but for another reason. That band's set made me rue the choice to forego earplugs, as Gillard and Tim Tobias played some loud guitar with a healthy dose of high end. Gillard was equally loud last Saturday and as the evening wore on, these ears got a little more sensitive to all those power chords, as well as the roars of the crowd. In my defense, it had been a long day that started early that morning, included a full day of work, dinner with Mum and little less caffeine that I would have preferred prior to getting to the show.  

But it was a good time.

Due to the security line, openers the Gotobeds were, quite literally, playing the final chord of their set as I walked in the door. When Eli Kasan, their singer, asked me how that final chord sounded, I couldn't lie: it rocked. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Recap of the African Rhythms Alumni Quintet + Memories of Randy Weston

Anyone who had the good fortune to hear Randy Weston play live, like the time he came to Pittsburgh in 2013, understood the musical lineage to which the pianist was connected. From the voicings he chose at the piano to the way he struck the keys, shaped the chords and phrased a melody - all the way up to the compositions themselves, the command of his playing felt like the direct link to the legends of his instrument that preceded him.

Saturday, April 20, Kente Arts Alliance, who brought Weston to town almost 11 years ago, presented the African Rhythms Alumni Quintet, a group of skilled musicians who all either played with the pianist or studied under him. In fact, three of them appeared at the 2013 show.

The evening's two-set performance paid tribute through a number of Weston compositions. Among the selections, "Hi Fly" is the one that has become something of a classic, having been recorded by numerous musicians, including Cannonball Adderley and Eric Dolphy. Many of the other tunes are not as well known, but the band played them with a passion that nearly forces you to dig out and rediscover more Weston music.

The whole quintet was top notch but I could have listened to pianist Sharp Radway play solo all night. He provided plenty of support for the other players but his solos made it clear that he sees his role as keeper of the Weston flame going. "Berkshire Blues" presented a great example of this, with the unique chord voicings that Radway chose. The song isn't a traditional blues, which only made it better. "The Shrine" began with a tritone vamp on the piano before going into a slow dirge that evoked Charles Mingus' "Meditations on Integration."

Alto saxophonist/flutist TK Blue served as the announcer for the band, engaging the audience with tales of Weston and adding bright and fiery solos to "Hi-Fly" and some vocal flute playing in "The Shrine." But if Blue was the m.c., bassist Alex Blake might have been the fire driving the whole group. As he did the last time he came to town, Blake sat down with his upright bass leaning towards him. Throughout the night, he walked, plucked and slapped it as was needed. He even did a variation on the Slam Stewart method of soloing, since he sang along with his lines, although there were times that it seemed like he might have been testifying. 

Trombonist Frank Lacy was the one musician, besides Radway, who didn't come to town in '13. His gritty 'bone playing has been a crucial part of the Mingus Tribute bands in New York (he also recorded his own album of Mingus tunes) and he also tears it up in the free wheeling trio 1032K. From the beginning of the night, he was flying high, bringing a heavy swing to "African Village Bedford-Stuyvesant" and making his horn yell. 

Finally, Chief Baba Neil Clarke kept the music driving, with three congas, a series of cymbals and nothing resembling a traditional trap kit. Considering Weston's vast knowledge of different musics from Africa and around the world, Clarke's set-up made perfect sense. His performance in "Little Niles" felt manic in the best possible way, highlighting a tune that has a long, flowing form, the likes of which are rarely heard in this kind of music. 

Speaking of this music, after seeing this show and unpacking it for a few days, I went back to my interview with Weston that preceded his visit. (He passed away in 2018.) One thing I recalled before looking at it was that he didn't use the word "jazz." "I never heard a musician say to another musician, 'We’re going to go play some jazz,'" he said. "Interesting, huh? Instead, [they’ll say], “We’re going to play Duke’s music or Billie Holiday’s music or Benny Goodman’s music.” We never use the word."

What I had forgotten was that Weston saw himself less as a musician and more like a storyteller. "Music is spiritual. It’s taken me from Bed-Stuy growing up, to the black church, the blues, big band and all over Asia and Africa," he said. "So I tell stories about my experiences, about African-American culture, African culture and the spirituality in music itself." 

It's good to know those stories are continuing to be told.

Friday, April 26, 2024

An Appreciation of Michael Cuscuna

I've told this story numerous times, but it seems like it's never appeared on this blog, and the timing is right. It was a chilly almost wintery morning in either November or December 1984. Like every weekday morning, I was up early to deliver the Post-Gazette before heading to school, where I was a senior. My morning routine usually involved bringing the papers into our living room, counting them, putting them in my delivery sack, grabbing rubber bands ("gum bands" to us Pittsburghers) and heading out on my route. 

On this morning, before I could get to the papers, I found a thick square box between our two front doors. The box had my name on it. IT had arrived - The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk, a four-record set that was only available by mail order from the label that put it together: Mosaic. This was a major expense for a teenager, even one with a lucrative paper route. I think it might have cost about $8 per record. (Insert rimshot here.) 

There was barely any time to skim the set's detailed booklet over breakfast, let alone listen to any of the records. But when I got home that afternoon, I starting poring over both the music and detailed notes about each session, stopping to even follow along in a book of transcribed Monk piano solos. I had just gotten into Monk over the last few months. Hal Willner's tribute album was my gateway; I wanted to hear it because John Zorn was on it. 

After playing That's the Way I Feel Now and scratching my head several times, I purchased a few of Monk's OJC reissues. The compilation's inner sleeve mentioned Mosaic's Monk set and my dad had probably received a catalog from them with details. This almost secret/extra effort way of hearing the music seemed like an important step I needed to take.

I don't think my sentimentality is getting in the way when I say that purchasing that album was a defining moment for me, as both a musician (I still believed I was going to be a saxophonist) and as a writer (that would come later). And this is all due to the efforts of Michael Cuscuna, who started Mosaic with the late Charlie Lourie. Michael passed away last weekend and the world has lost a champion for music preservation and elevation.

Reading through those Mosaic catalogs from the '80s and '90s, it felt like Cuscuna and Lourie were as excited about these releases as listeners would be. If there was a little bit of back-patting going on, they were also quick to expound about the lengths that they would go to find the best sounding master of a session for one of their sets. That devotion made each set feel like a Big Deal. Back in the late '80s, the boxset boom had yet to really catch fire. These guys were ahead of the game and they showed how to do it right.

When CD reissues kicked into full gear in the following decade, Cuscuna became synonymous with jazz rereleases. He had already been instrumental in getting Blue Note back in business around the same time he launched Mosaic. Now he was the one rummaging through old warehouses and storage facilities (perhaps not literally, but they were similar), unearthing those gems again, discovering alternate takes or lost songs and, most importantly, figuring out what they were and from where they came. Most people might have overlooked the fact that Blue Note listed a Tina Brooks album on their inner sleeves that was never released. Cuscuna noticed it, and found the tenor saxophonist's missing session. If you unearthed something like that, you'd be clucking about it in a slick catalog too.

Cuscuna wasn't devoted to just one period of jazz music either. In one of Mosaic's most tremendous releases, he and Lourie curated the entire output of the early jazz label Commodore. Records in three volumes; each box has between 20 and 23 records. He also released Cecil Taylor's complete output for Candid Records. (If the word "complete" sounds repetitive, that's because these guys wanted each set to be comprehensive. When doing a set for the prolific organist Jimmy Smith, they had to limit it to one month.)

I didn't realize it at the time but Cuscuna also shaped my musical scope in another way. When I told my brother that my first encounter with Albert Ayler annoyed me more than moved me, he recommended buying an Ayler album, listening closely and reading what the liner notes said about this wild saxophonist. When I took his advice, the album I found was Vibrations, which had extremely insightful notes about Ayler's background and music - penned by Cuscuna. This cat had a handle on everything.

And he was not jaded or arrogant about it. He was enthusiastic. The University of Pittsburgh brought Cuscuna to town in 2011 for a lecture at the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert. In a phone interview prior to his arrival, he was gregarious and very open when speaking to this fanboy about his work. It was quite a confidence boost to hear that a quote from my article wound up in the Washington Post's obituary for Cuscuna. (For the record, here's the quote: "If I put out music that is really unworthy or would embarrass the artist or make an artist unhappy, then I think that’s the worst sin I could commit.")

Another quote from him appeared on the Mosaic website earlier this week, which really hit home too: "It’s the stuff that gets to you between about [ages] 12 and 25 that stays with you for life. You never absorb music in quite the same way after that.” It explains why both Monk piano solos and, heaven forbid, the lyrics to some REO Speedwagon songs are still easily accessible in my head. 

Personally, Mosaic always represented the highest level of jazz collecting. Along with the alternate takes, the label made sure you knew all you wanted to know about the artists and the sessions they made. When I became a staff writer at InPgh, I felt like I had really arrived when I was able to snag some promos and write about them for the paper. It took a few years but I even got to review a couple for JazzTimes. (Several other jazz scribes were clamoring for those reviews.)

As the above picture shows, I've been able to amass many of the sets over the years. Having enough Christmas money to afford the Larry Young set made it feel extra special. Getting the Clifford Brown set from my parents for my birthday takes me back to that time. Two years ago, I found the one set I never thought I could afford - the Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio, a mind-numbing 18-disc set (the vinyl counterpoint was 27 records!). It was being sold at a chain store for less than half of what it's worth. 

In my interview with Cuscuna, he mentioned that the Cole set (which was originally offered to buyers on an installment plan!) was one of the few projects where he never burned out on the artist. Listening to it, it's easy to see why. Nat was that good. Sure it's all about the music, but the presentation certainly adds to the listening pleasure.

If this piece has been more about me than the late, great Michael Cuscuna, that can be attributed to the fact that Michael really shaped the way I approach music, largely as a listener but probably to some degree as a writer. Not just jazz, he opened my ears with everything. Collecting is fun, but it's more rewarding when you can share these discoveries with people, opening them up to new sounds and new ideas that they can explore on their own.

Michael was all about that. And I'm doing my damnedest to pay it forward. 

Thank you, Michael.