Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I've made the big time at last

This week The Village Voice published their poll of the best jazz albums of the year, and I was one of the writers asked to submit their lists. That puts my two cents - or one-and-a-half as you'll see in a second - right up there with guys like Howard Mandel and Bob Rusch. Here's the link to the list:

I skimmed through the list and many times thought, I didn't know that came out; What? A new Von Freeman album?; or Yeah, I forgot about that. Maybe I shouldn't say that, for fear of jeapordizing my chances of getting asked to participate in next year's poll. Or maybe I should start listening to more CDs. There's also a link where you can see critic's individual lists. Mine is blank in all the categories save Top 10 albums. At this time of year, I usually draw a blank, especially when it comes to sections like Best Latin album or debut. I didn't even try to get a list to Blurt. Actually I tried but could only come up with four rock albums that I liked for the year.

But unless I get an email stating that I'm a knucklehead and who the hell do I think I am trying to opine with the big dogs, I'll be okay.

CD review: Wadada Leo Smith - Spiritual Dimensions

Another installment of something I want to talk about before 2009 is over.

Wadada Leo Smith
Spiritual Dimensions

This two-disc set came out sometime around October, but I didn't get wind of it until about a month and a half later, after I had submitted my Best of 2009 list. It took several listens for me to decide that Spiritual Dimensions would have been on that list had I heard it earlier. Like a lot of great albums, multiple listens are important because the depth of the music doesn't reveal completely itself right away.

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith was a co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1960s Chicago and has gone on to release over 30 albums on his own (his Kabell label) and with other musicians and imprints.

Spiritual Dimensions presents him leading two groups as fascinating for their instrumentation as for what they produce. The Golden Quartet, the group on the first disc, includes Vijay Iyer on piano and synthesizer, John Lindberg on bass and both Don Moye and Pheeroan AkLaff on drums. Recorded at the 2008 Vision Festival in New York, they are the freer of the two Smith ensembles, in terms of rhythms and tempos. Even with two drummers, the music never gets heavy-handed, even when they get a little more spastic on "Crossing Sirat." At times Smith seems to act more like a catalyst, who leads the group, jumping in at points to add coloring to the proceedings. But even when Smith is unleashing wild smears and growls in the tradition of people like Lester Bowie, he's always doing much more than blowing free. These moments are often when the structure of the tune comes out and charts the piece's next move.

This approach becomes especially noticeable when listening to both discs back to back since the first ends and the second begins with the same composition, played by both groups: "South Central L.A. Kulture." Both begin the same way, with solo Smith emittings some long, lonely notes that he wrings dry as he forces them out of his horn. Gradually both groups morph into a funk riff, which Lindberg. on the first disc, anchors with an over-the-top wah-wah effect.

The bassist returns on disc two, along with AkLaff, but this group is decidedly more electric with no less than three guitars (Michael Gregory, Brandon Ross, Nels Cline), with a fourth on half the tracks (Lamar Smith), along with another bassist (Skuli Sverrisson) and a cellist (Okkyung Lee). The four extended pieces (between 12 and almost 20 minutes) come from a show at New Haven's Firehouse 12, although the booklet states that Cline actually overdubbed his parts in Los Angeles, so purists could quibble about the not-totally live aspect of that.

Again multiple players don't make the music busy or in any way cluttered. In fact, try singling out all of the instrumentalists, and you're likely to get lost in the swell of arrangements which again speaks well of Smith's skill as a band leader. Guitars rise and fall in the music, adding countermelodies here, textures there. Look for the other bass and it often becomes clear that both are making a harmonized vamp.

An obvious reference for this set could be 1970s Miles Davis, which isn't a ridiculous assessment, since Smith has played in Yo Miles!, a group that pays tribute to that period of the Prince of Darkness' career. But this group doesn't go for as much of a heavy funk feeling as their predecessors. Sometimes they evoke the first spacey side of Get Up With It, but they play with more direction. At 19 minutes, "Angela Davis" doesn't have much in the way of dynamic shifts, but they go on an interesting journey with it. "Organic" starts with outer space string transmissions, gradually sets up a two-bass groove and includes a rubato Smith solo before closing out on the opening riff.

Sometimes when a musician has been around for a while and has been prolific, it can be easy to take them for granted, thinking that their work will always be there to explore. Wadada Leo Smith has definitely been a productive musician but hopefully this set will garner more attention and help the uninitiated to discover him. It's a good place to start with the trumpeter and it makes you curious to hear more about what he does.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

CD catchup capsule: Rez Abbasi - Things to Come

(Another in a pile of albums that have been lying around that I've meant to write about over the past few months)

Rez Abbasi
Things to Come

Guitarist Rez Abbasi was 1/3 of Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition that released Apti at the beginning of this year. For Abbasi's album (which came out sometime in at the tail end of the summer) that group reconvenes - Mahanthappa, drummer Dan Weiss - along with pianist Vijay Iyer and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller.

There are a lot of times where Abbasi's guitar sounds very clean and mild-mannered, which downplays the complexity (rhythmic and harmonic) of his writing. I expected things to get a little more tense or aggressive, especially considering the way Mahanthappa can tear things up. (It does, to an extent on "Why Me Why Them" and "Realities of Chromaticism.") And of course there's Iyer, the critical darling of this year - a distinction he has earned with good reason. He makes some unusual intervallic leaps in at least one track.

Things to Come is an appropriate name because while it isn't as strong as one might expect from this guitarist or this group of people, it shows great signs for Abbasi's future. In the meantime it still has a lot going for it. One thing that's especially strong in the use of Kiran Ahluwalia, the guitarist's wife, contributing wordless "indian vocals" (her credit on the CD, not my phrase) on four tracks. Never a fan of this type of singing, and a skeptic of most singing in progressive jazz, I was really taken with Ahluwalia's skill at acting like another instrument in the mix.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

CD review: Seabrook Power Plant & Jeremy Udden

There are some CDs that have been sitting around that I swore several months ago I would write about. Now that the end of the year is coming, I figured it was time to do it as a way of looking back. So even though some of the things have been out for several months, there's no better time to sound off on them.

Seabrook Power Plant
(Loyal Label)

Brandon Seabrook has a great idea - playing noisy, improvisational and sometimes heavy music with a banjo. After all, Steve Martin once told us you can't play sad music on a banjo, so presumably all of this would extol a certain joie de vivre. Few people outside of Eugene Chadbourne have utilized the ol' string box this way.

The problem is, if this music is joyous, that feeling gets lost as it moves out of the heads of Seabrook Power Plant to the listener's ears. The first track on the album with banjo (Seabrook also plays electric git-box) come off almost a novelty noise number, or a generic attempt at emulating a great classic rock band. "Peter Dennis Blanford Townshend" finds Seabrook raking his instrument at lightning speed while his brother Jared unleashes machine gun drum rolls. It has stops and starts a la hardcore, but it really sounds, as the press release states like a cassette stuck on fast-forward. But not in a good way.

It could be the Seabrook trio (rounded out by bassist Tom Blancart) intends to unnerve listeners. That could explain why the last two-and-a-half minutes of the six-minute "Waltz of the Nuke Workers" consist of an abrasive arpeggio on the upper part of the guitar neck played over and over and over and over and ........... you get the idea. The trio heads in a bone-crushing metal direction on "I Don't Feel So Good," which could mow down everything in sight, but then they never move beyond the initial riff.

That approach brings down a lot the album. Several songs show Seabrook has some great ideas about how to use the banjo in a new context, but he needs to cut out the repetition that makes a lot these songs sound like sketches.

Jeremy Udden
(Fresh Sound New Talent)

As a support player, Seabrook really fleshes out the songscapes of Jeremy Udden on Plainville. Seabrook and Pete Rende (Fender Rhodes, pedal steel and most significantly pump organ) lend a cinematic quality to backgrounds that are equally as important as the alto saxophonist's spare but riveting melody lines. In effect, the music ends up sounding like a rural version of In a Silent Way, especially on the closing track, which slowly unfolds over rubato guitar and banjo strums and droning organ. Eventually it begins to catch fire, though not in a way that implies chaos so much as a reawakening.

Plainville features many pastoral moments like this, from "The Reunion" which seems like it could serve as the soundtrack to such an event, to "Christmas Song," a lyrical Udden original where his alto plays a melody that sounds like it's written for a vocalist. In some ways these tunes feel tranquil enough to be background music, but the difference is sonic wallpaper doesn't have anything in it to grab your attention. Udder's music, on the other hand, has all sorts of little elements that tug at the ear.

The band can also rock out if they feel so inclined. "Big Lick" pounds a bit, with Seabrook producing a trebly, brittle sound similar to Marc Ribot, thereby making this track recall late '80s Lounge Lizards. "Curbs" also dips into mutant surf twang, while "Red Coat Line," a delightfully rigid waltz, includes some plinking and feverish banjo strumming from the string man. Udden, who also plays soprano sax on one track, holds back in comparison as a soloist. But his simplicity
sounds deliberate, and in the best interest of the mood, rather than a lack of ideas. Keep an eye out for this guy.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Love Letters' holiday highlights, overdue

At this point, it's been two weeks since Thanksgiving. Two days after the holiday, the Love Letters climbed onto the stage at Gooski's for show number two. Since we had a few weeks between that night and our previous gig, we got a number of practices in and things were really starting to click. The songs were starting to sound more comfortable, the comfort brought new arrangement ideas or experimentation with how parts are played. You know, all the usual band stuff that I kind of forgot about during my time off from playing.

So by the time we were ready to play, I felt some eager anticipation. The first song we did was really new, built on one riff (though I cheated and threw a simple break in the middle of it, so it's more like 1 1/2 riffs). The words are kind of a work in progress, about some things that have been going on around me lately with people and things. But it was a good bring-them-to-their-feet opener, especially because for the first 20 seconds or so, we just stand there (me with my face in hands on that night) until Erin does a couple cymbal crashes. That song (known at this point at "One Riff Shanley") went so well that when we charged into "The Last One" immediately after, the tempo got pretty fast and Husker Du-like. I can use them as a reference because a friend from work said that song reminded her of the Huskers.

During one song I could see Erin out of the corner of my eye behind the drums and the way she was playing seemed so in tune and in command of the moment that it really energized me for the rest of the set. Later on I realized that the stage volume might have been loud as hell but everything was perfectly balanced. Aimee had bought a new amp for her keyboard a few days earlier, so I could hear what she was playing. Buck was pretty loud during his solos but didn't drown anyone out. He always seems to know right where to be. When Aimee and Erin sang together it hit you really hard and it made me a little relieved that my mic wasn't as loud, just in case I wasn't hitting the notes. I didn't drink until after the set so my voice would survive, and I chugged lemon juice with club soda to keep my throat strong.

The Four Roses played one of those sets that sounded strong from the first note. They're kind of countryish, but the opener almost had a Mersey beat riff to it that I loved. The impact reminded me of a night about six or seven years ago when Shopping played a show with the Mofones and Shopping just killed as soon as they started.

The Crow Flies ended the night with a reunion set that didn't seem like they were under-rehearsed. But they've been playing together off and on for 20 years, so they can go on instinct. They segued a bunch of songs together and played with the kind of focus that I admire. I've told the Love Letters that my goal at this point at least is to get us to a level where we don't have to wonder, "What should I play here, where are we? What do I do?" and instead just play something knowing that the rest of the band can follow along or guide us towards an alternative idea. In other words, get to a point where we can work together musically and not worry about verbal stuff.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Where I was last Saturday

Playing right now: Nellie McKay - Normal As Blueberry Pie (A Tribute to Doris Day)
It's kind of a strange introduction to Nellie McKay - picking up her Doris Day tribute album before getting any of her original albums, but this is pretty good. She has a great voice, naturally the songs are good, and even the ones with the perky-gal-swwwwwwingin'-with-a-band don't sound too treacly.

This time last week I was sitting in the very last row of seats at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theatre here in Pittsburgh checking out Steve Nelson. Originally from Pittsburgh, this vibraphonist left in the late '70s and went on to play with people like Grant Green and David "Fathead" Newman before eventually hooking up with Dave Holland in his incredible quintet, which also included Chris Potter.

While Holland's band spent a lot of time making songs in odd tempos swing like crazy, Nelson's own work is a bit more traditional but still really exciting. Among the pieces he played, his quartet tore through a fast version of Jobim's "Wave" wherein Nelson kept finishing phrases with a distinct clip to them. Mulgrew Miller - a long time friend and collaborator of Nelson's - played whole chords in his solo that he turned into melodic ideas. As far as I'm concerned, a musician has to really have it together to pull of a convincing version of "'Round Midnight," and Nelson did, with double-time phrases that he kept pulling back into regular time, and a cadenza that lasted about 30 seconds before the rest of the band came in for the final chord.

The Kelly-Strayhorn was packed to the gills that night. Part of that could be due to the fact that (from what I heard) 65 people in the audience were members of Nelson's family, but regardless it was great to see that many people at jazz show that was put on by an independent organization like the Kente Arts Alliance. Last year at this time, they brought Billy Bang which was also an amazing show, but which didn't draw as well as this one. Hopefully more people will come out in the future for these kinds of shows, whether they know the musician's work already or whether it's new to them.

When that show was done I wandered over to Sonny's Tavern (with a stop in between at Crazy Mocha for a 10:30 spot of joe) to catch the Beagle Brothers' four-year anniversary show. It wasn't as packed as I thought it would be, but they were still tearing it up. And cutting up.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

I've been remiss....

Tonight I was standing at work thinking that a lot of musical events have happened in the past couple of weeks, and I've blogged about absolutely NONE OF THEM. What the hell is my problem? Kahil El'Zabar and Hamiett Blueitt came to town; the Love Letters played at Gooski's; Steve Nelson played at the Kelly-Strayhorn. All good stuff. This blog is going to die on the vine choking on old posts and Japanese porn spam. (Josh Berman, why do attract those freakazoids?!)

Part of my lack of performance can be attributed to Thelonious Monk. My brother got me Robin D. G. Kelley's new bio of Monk, Thelonious Monk - The Life and Times of an American Original and though my time to read is always limited, I have been spending every free moment reading it. It's so detailed about every aspect of his life, which I love in a bio. There are some qualities I don't like, but overall it reminds me how much I love this guy and what a great human being he was. Plus he and I are both Libras and I think that might be why I feel such empathy for him.

Because I have been so into Monk again (it happens a couple times a year) I had to rent Straight No Chaser the absolutely brilliant film about his life, with a lot of incredible footage in concert and in the studio. It doesn't try to be a straight up and down history of his life, but it gives several great slices of it. And when they show his open casket in one of the final scenes, I almost lost it.

I keep wishing he would visit me in a dream and help me find the answers to everything. Too bad life doesn't work that way.

So that's where I am right now. I'm going to go to bed, and when I wake up I'll try to start blogging about the other things I mentioned, working backwards to get all caught up.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My two sonny boys

This picture was taken a few weeks ago. Brisbane was never to sure about Donovan, but on this day he knew better.

A Real Gone Cat is Gone

This might not seem like a music entry, but it will be by the end.

On Saturday night my cat Brisbane left his bowl of Fancy Feast almost full. That sent up a red flag because he lives for that stuff. We usually feed him around 5 p.m., and he starts meowling for it around 2:30. And doesn't let up.

He's been looking pretty scrawny and my wife said that he also threw up pretty bad earlier in the day. The next day he was hiding behind the couch so I decided that, as much as he absolutely despises going to the vet, and how much it breaks my heart to put him in the pet carrier, I had to do it. When he's had check-ups he usually has to have a tranquilzer to calm his nerves, and to ensure that he won't pee in the carrier. I skipped it this time given his condition.

A little background: I have no idea when Brisbane was born. He was a stray cat that used to chase our cat Ivy up a tree, in hopes of getting some action. One summer I began a courting process where I'd take food out to him. I dubbed him Sad Kitty because he looked forlorn and lonely. As much as a cat can be a bastard, he needs to eat. Eventually he became bold enough to jump through the hole in our screen door, come in and have something to eat and then curl up on the floor for a nap. For the first time in my life, I had a pet.

That was 1995.

Ivy passed on in 2003. The next year we got Nina, who liked him a lot more than Ivy ever did. (Ivy tolerated him, but just barely.) Then after a bout with kitty lymphoma, Nina crawled under the basement steps last year and went to sleep.

During one vet visit a year after he was adopted, the doctor took a guess at Brisbane's age. He put it around four or five, judging from the wear on his teeth. This would put him at 17 or 18 in 2009. He hasn't been to the vet since 2003 when he got his teeth cleaned and his canines broke due to age. He's been an indoor cat and he's lived the life he wanted, so I don't feel too guilty about that.

When I took him to the vet on Sunday, I expected to here one of two things: "Yeah, he's pretty broken down, so this might be the end of the line for him," or "He just has __________ and that can probably be treated with a dose of _______."

Instead they wanted to draw blood to see how it looked. Then they wanted to take x-rays. Since they weren't conclusive, they wanted to keep him overnight and do a ultrasound in the morning to get a better idea. That didn't lead to anything conclusive, so they talked about keeping him a few more days and........ and......... and..........[insert sound of a cash register here]

It took a phone call and some time to come to my senses to realize: he's 18 years old. He despises the vet. I'm not with him. He can't take it and I can't take it either. I've been gearing up for this awful moment for a while now. It's time for him to go to sleep.

On Monday night, I fussed over him a little and let him walk around the room. They trimmed his claws, something he never let me do and something I never had to guts to force on him. Maybe his paws felt better. He was shaved underneath and looked scraggly but his head looked sharp as always. I held him as he drifted off. For the first time ever he seemed cool with medical treatment.

He must've known I love when you go out with a joke: After he was asleep, I noticed his tongue was sticking out a little bit. That not sick, you see, because Jennie and I always loved when kitties forget to put their tongue back in after grooming, so I got a final laugh from Brisbane. I'm sad but I'm okay.

In 1997, my band Mystery Date did a song called "Tryst" and the second verse was all about Brisbane:

Never knew where you next meal was coming from
You had to be sure to eat every crumb
On the back porch rolling in the dirt
When I got close to you I could see the hurt
In your eyes

I picked you up and took you inside
You regained some of your pride
In your coat
Then we built up a level of trust
But every once in a while your crust
shows through

Now you've got me wrapped around your paw
Empathy is my fatal flaw
Someday I will learn to say no
To you

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The power of educational television

40 years ago today, Sesame Street debuted, armed with the crazy notion that television could educate kids. All those years ago who'd'a thunk that it was more than just a wild idea and would go on to have words like "institution" attached to it.

I've always felt that a lot of the significant education we get doesn't come when we're sitting at the desk listening to teachers. It comes from the in-between stuff: the revelations you have while reading books; conversations with fellow students, who offer a greater perspective on how people comprehend different things; off-the-cuff advice from teachers or instructors. In other words, when you don't think you're learning that is often when you can pick up more things.

So one weekday morning in 1971, I sat down to watch Sesame Street and the show opened with a blind keyboard player singing through something that made his voice all garbled:

1-2-3 Sesame Streeeeeeeeeet
A-B-C Sesame Streeeeeeeet

He did the numbers and letters and his three back-up singers did the other part.

For years I wondered if I was just piecing this together in my mind or if Stevie Wonder really did sing that song. A few years ago, my thoughts were confirmed with the Sesame Street box set Songs from the Street came out. Stevie did sing that song and he was on the first disc. And it was exactly how I remembered it.

Then a few months ago I was routing around youtube and found this:
Go ahead - look at it. Now. It's 6:47, just so you know.

Now you don't put something that heavy, that badass on a kids tv show without realizing that it's going to leave an impression on them. First of all, that song is one of the bad-assest songs ever written - with that killer clavinet riff and the funky bassline/countermelody. But kids aren't going to know what a clavinet is. They're just going to get caught up in the beat and Stevie's head bob. Because he's into it. All those guys look cool, even the pudgy trumpet player and the geeky bass player.

And its effect might not be one where it changes lives. It just makes you think - about music and about race and how everything seems really cool. I completely forgot about the clip, to be honest, until I stumbled across it. Suddenly it all came back to me and I remembered it and it made me wonder if it's been with me, in the back of my head for all these years.
The arrangement is great. Note that he changes the line in the second verse to reference Sesame Street, and also gives a shout-out to Cookie Monster before the break in the middle. (There's also some screaming off mike early in the song.) Then just when you think they're done, after playing that killer closing riff, he makes the band go back into the main vamp again. And dig those Fender stacks - right on Sesame Street.
So as the show marks the big 4-0 I want to thank everyone involved for what they've done to make me the way I am. Which is a lot. (I didn't even go into the vaudeville aspect of most of the skits!)

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Here I Go Again

I've spent the last week to 10 days up to my ears in CDs that I have to review for either Blurt or JazzTimes so the blog has been neglected. At this point, Blurt two reviews from me with another finished one that will be sent soon, and one more to write. Then I have five jazz discs to cover. Check out the Blurt site to see if my reviews of Karl Blau (great solo artist on K) or the new Echo & the Bunnymen are up yet.

Yeah, that's right - Echo and the Bunnymen. I feel like I've spent the last few months giving updates on veteran bands that are still at it, or who have reunited: Mission of Burma, Echo and now, just this morning, I finally finished a review of the new album by My Dad Is Dead. I'm not going to offer any details here (keep checking the webzine!) but I will tell you it's good. Now I get to write about Danielle Howle, who I love. Or is it "whom I love"?

Yesterday was my first day off from work after nine straight days. It would've been a good day to write, but I was hanging out with the kid. Writing was limited to naptime. Oh well. Gotta go.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

CD Review: Jon Irabagon - The Observer

Jon Irabagon
The Observer

Jon Irabagon cleans up good. That is to say, after hearing and seeing him exploit all the sonic potentials of his saxophone with Mostly Other People Do the Killing earlier this year, these ears were impressed that he's equally adept at toning down the wails and the irony (no covers of Billy Joel here) and leading a more traditional quartet with veterans Rufus Reid (bass), Victor Lewis (drums) and Kenny Barron (piano), with another traditionalist (trumpeter Nicholas Payton) dropping in on a couple of songs. Makes the cynic in me wonder if the MOPDTK guys are snickering.

Of course, you don't win the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Saxophone Competition by sticking with Roscoe Mitchell shrieks. Or Cannonball Adderley imitations. But knowing his other side, it took me a couple listens to get past the free bias and get into what he does on The Observer. (Note to aspiring critics, don't make your final judgment on the first listen.) It became clear at that point that his writing and soloing skills are pretty mature.

There comes a section in the steady swinger "Joy's Secret" where the rhythm section locks into a descending progression, with Reid doing a pedal point groove, thumping the low strings (sounding at times like he's bowing) and answering on the high end. It ends a level of tension that is felt in Irabagon's solo, continues through Barron's and finally releases at the start of Payton's solo. Even in the streamlined, straight ahead setting, the saxophonist proves himself by throwing some rough little licks into his solo. His double timed, tongued phrases pass quickly in "January's Dream" but they grab your ear and wish that he had taken two choruses instead of one. At the end of the chorus, though, he turns up the heat by playing through the intro instead of using it to pull back. On "Makai and Tacoma" and the title track, Irabagon switches to tenor and he sounds just as mature on that horn.

His choices of covers are also off the beaten track and indicate a wide scope of influence. Gigi Gryce's ballad "The Infant's Song" goes for nearly two engaging minutes with just alto and bass digging into the melody before Lewis and Barron drop in. "Cup Bearers" by Tom McIntosh follows immediately, taking the tempo back up and gives Irabagon a chance to show off his speed and melodic skills. Elmo Hope's "Barfly" is not only a remarkable choice, it presents an impressive duet partner - Hope's widow Bertha on piano.

The final track is titled "Closing Arguments" an ironic name on a couple levels, because it doesn't contain any arguments as such, just a pensive minor melody where the piano answers the alto's lines.

True, Irabagon can play it straight, and he does it very well. But The Observer also seems like it's just the beginning of an adventurous career as a leader.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

CD Review: Josh Berman - Old Idea

Josh Berman
Old Idea

Delmark, that Chicago institution of a record label, has been documenting a newer generation of Windy City improvisers and composers over the past couple of years. (Kevin Whitehead uses the phrase "post Vandermark" to describe these cats in the notes to this disc, which is kind of how I was thinking about them.) In 2007 the label released Just Like This by tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson's 12-piece Project Project. Last year brought bassist Jason Ajemian's The Art of Dying. Now cornetist Josh Berman, makes his debut as a leader, following time as a member of Project Project, Chicago Luzerne Exchange and the Exploding Star Orchestra, among other things.

Old Idea actually doubles as the name of this quintet, which includes saxophonist Jackson, vibist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Nori Tanaka. The "idea" encompasses the fact that Berman isn't afraid to touch on influences like Rex Stewart and Ruby Braff while creating something that's totally current and bristling with excitement. (Bill Dixon and Dave Douglas also factor into his list of inspirations, by the way.) He has a handle on compositions with structures that pull your ears in unorthodox directions. In one, the rhythm section lays down a steady riff while the horns play a melody in direct contrast; later, the sustain on the vibes creates an dreamlike state of uncertainty that says "Keep listening. Watch what's going to happen." One tune appears in three different takes: one with tenor and trumpet; one with vibes and rhythm; one with the full quintet. Each one sounds really different, stretching around in different ways that affect the sound of the piece.

It's an easy jump to compare a two-horns-vibes-and-rhythm group to Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch album, especially when the music has that loose-limbed feel that can easily shift back and forth between tempo and freedom. Plus Adasiewicz's tone on the vibes has that same kind of mysterious quality that Bobby Hutcherson brought to the Dolphy album. They sound rich without twinkling.

But even though the comparison does work in some ways, Berman and his crew clearly have their own thing going on. "Almost Late" has an deceptive theme that almost seems to fuse the intervals of "Giant Steps" with Mingus' "What Love." The trumpet and tenor begin like the former song and end the phrases inquisitively like the latter. And maybe that's only obvious when you're looking for it. When Berman is left to his own devices with just Tanaka as a safety net, he displays a great sense of bent notes and rhythmic twists. Jackson's tenor also never ceases to astound, whether growling or blowing.

This is one of those albums that I could very easily listen to over and over in hopes of delivering more specifics about its greatness. But if I do that, this review will never get finished. (That's half the reason the aforementioned Delmark releases never made it onto to the blog.) Hopefully, this has offered enough of a teaser.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

W'oh! Mo Joe Mo(rris)

I think I spoke too soon.

When I reviewed Joe Morris' album Wildlife (AUM Fidelity) in the October issue of JazzTimes, I opined that Morris' bass playing might be starting to overshadow his work as a guitarist. No sooner did I write that review than three new Morris CD showed up in my mailbox, two of which have him playing guitar. So it looks like guitar and bass are getting equal time in his hands. Along with ESP-Disk's recent release by the Flow Trio - which also finds Morris on bass and is reviewed by me in the new November JT - it's been a fruitful season for Mr. Morris.

Today on Earth (AUM Fidelity) casts Morris the guitarist in a slightly more conventional setting, as part of a quartet with longtime drummer Luther Gray, alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs and bassist Timo Shanko. That is to say, the album features straight out 4/4 swinging and AABA themes in addition to some more bumpy structures.

"Backbone" opens with a guitar-alto unison theme before Morris goes into a solo full of crisp lines that occasionally toy with the rhythm, thanks to Gray's accents. The title track has a very Ornette-ish feel, from the tumbling bass and drums underneath it to the staccato melody and tone of Hobbs' alto. But similarities make way to originality as the saxophonist's growls open up his solo. The guitar and alto interplay at the start of "Embarrassment of Riches" has the sonic quality of a siren thanks to their close intervals and because of the way Morris seems to be picking.

Four of the seven tracks on Today on Earth clock in at 10 or 11 minutes, and all of that time is well spent. Of his recent releases this album is one of the best place to start (behind the Flow Trio), since its places his adventurous improvisational chops in a setting that makes them stand out even more.

Colorfield (ESP-Disk) finds Morris and Gray freely improvising with pianist Steve Lantner. In his liner notes, Morris (again on guitar) borrows the album title from a school of painting that disregards figurative elements for uninterrupted layers of color. He also says the group derived inspiration from Cecil Taylor's bass-less trio with Jimmy Lyons and either Sunny Murray or Andrew Cyrille.

Unfortunately, the color analogy at times seems appropriate in the wrong way. The four tracks, while interesting at times, suffer from the limitations of a one-colored canvas - a lack of dynamics. The group begins in a certain mood and doesn't do much to get beyond it or expand upon it. Gray sounds especially grounded in opener "Transparent," spastically tapping on snare and hi-hat. Lantner and Morris contribute some pointillistic comments, but the next level never comes. The three-way exchanges in "Silver Sun" sound spirited at the outset, but don't exactly hold up over 13 minutes. "Bell Orange Curves" switches things up a bit, because the rhythms transform themselves throughout its nearly 16 minutes, but the guitar solo also feels a bit noodly too.
Compared to say, Taylor's Montmartre performances on Nefertiti the Beautiful One Has Come, that group was a constant barrage (I mean that in a good way) of soloists with supporters throwing musical "yeah"s and "you said it"s behind them. That was almost combative while Colorfield comes off as more polite. Maybe it'd be different in person.

Not be confused with a band with a similar sounding name that recording for Knitting Factory about 10 years ago, the Othertet features Morris on bass with Taylor Ho Bynum (a recent Anthony Braxton associate) on cornet and flugelhorn, Bill Lowe (who has played with everyone from Cecil Taylor to Eartha Kitt) on bass trombone and tuba and Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng on drums. Their self-titled release (Engine) has an all-encompassing feel of prime era Art Ensemble of Chicago. Obeng, a master drummer originally from Ghana, at various points plays trap kit, talking drum and percussion, that latter which he cleverly pans from channel to channel during one track. Bynum, on the other hand, often sounds like Don Cherry, circa New York Contemporary Five era with some piercing lines.

Things open with a lengthy piece credited to the group, which suggests an improv. If that's the case, the rapid point-counterpoint between Lowe's trombone and Bynum's muted cornet suggest that this group must have a strong rapport among them, and the rest of the disc proves that to a great degree. Lowe's "Haptown/Trenton" sounds like a Jazz Messengers blues arranged for tuba and flugelhorn. Morris does some slow, solid walking on "Dreamsketch" and "Cold Day Clip" takes a three-note tone poem and builds it into a tour de force, full of growling brass, elastic drums that play melody and rhythm and a bass that holds it all together.
The album's relatively lo-fi quality makes the whole thing sound a bit muddy, since a lot of the high end is missing. At the same time, it makes Cole and Bynum sound otherworldly, like a soprano sax or one of its lower brothers wandered into the room at some point, thereby adding to the sound of surprise. In other words, it doesn't detract too much from the session.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

CD Review: Digital Primitives- Hum Crackle and Pop

Digital Primitives
Hum Crackle and Pop

A few Saturdays ago, Digital Primitives came to town and played Garfield Artworks. Not to be confused with Digable Planets, this band is a trio consisting of tenor saxophonists Assif Tsahar, multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore (specifics are forthcoming) and drummer Chad Taylor. Tsahar and Cooper-Moore played here a few years ago as a duo, following an album they did on the saxophonist's Hopscotch label; and Cooper-Moore and Taylor also made an album for that label as Triptych Myth, with bassist Tom Abbs. Now the Planets have recently releasedtheir second album Hum, Crackle and Pop.

I got to the show late and only caught about 20 minutes of their set. They were in the midst of reworking "Over the Rainbow" when I got there. Then Cooper picked up the didley-bow and they played a raunchy groove that blended well with the gruff tenor sax. The evening ending (too quickly for me) with a number that featured the mouth bow, which was basically a bow that Cooper put in his mouth and bowed with another bow, opening and closing his mouth to alter the pitch of it. I was a little disappointed that I only heard that much music (and paid $10) but figured these guys could use the cash.

Hum, Crackle and Pop sounds like the work of several different groups, since the sound changes shape every time Cooper-Moore picks up a different instrument. The title track recalls Morphine, with a dirty low-end bass groove and some raunchy tenor, which almost sounds like it's run through a bit of distortion. You almost expect the ghost of Mark Sandman to show up and start singing. A few other songs find Cooper playing a string instrument (either banjo or twinger, according to credits) that sounds like a guitar, thanks to a heavy dose of either chorus or flanger. These tracks sound like funk a la Downtown New York, where musicians don't seriously attempt to make booty-shakin' music but still come up with something highly groovy. Still others have an almost backwoods country twang to them.

To that end, "Over the Rainbow" has a free, almost swampy background from Cooper and Taylor while Tsahar shows off his lyrical side. Tsahar, who in the past has come out of a Pharoah Sanders-style screaming/searing approach to his horn, doesn't get as intense this time around and even when he cuts loose, it works well to have the support of a riff underneath him. Taylor, who has played in the various Chicago Underground groups (Duo, Trio, Quartet) contributes the opening tune "Walkabout" a riff built around his m'bira, bass clarinet and mouth bow, in addition to the credit he receives for what are likely improvised pieces. Aside from a spoken word track, that succeeds in getting more abrasive than political, the trio never meanders whether they're working on an improvisation or a pre-conceived idea. This is one of those albums that can't be filed under jazz or improvisation, thanks to the range of music on it, and that's a mark in its favor.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Love Letters' official debut

Playing right now: Three Dog Night - Suitable for Framing
(I don't care what anyone says, those guys could sing like mother^%&*ers. I put this on because a close friend really loves them and she's really sick now, so this is providing some solace.)

The Love Letters, my new band, had their official debut last Thursday. (I say "official" because we played a show in September, but that wasn't exactly open to the public, and this gig was at a club, the Thunderbird Cafe.) The instrumentation is the same as the Mofones: guitar, bass, keyboards, drums. We even do a couple of Mofones songs. But it's pretty different, sonically. Aimee from the Mofones is playing keyboards now and writing more songs. And Erin, our drummer, sings harmonies a lot. Anytime the two of them sang together, things really kicked into overdrive. When I joined the vocal section things..... eh, I could say I sullied the waters, but that wouldn't necessarily be true. I think I did okay, harmony-wise. Still trying to regain my bass chops, though.

And then there's Buck. Oh, Buckley Knauer, you guitar master from a family of guitar masters. Buck's great. And he spun out some great solos throughout the evening. Things went pretty smoothly, overall. A few too many lulls between songs, but we'll work on that.

Trash Magnet opened the evening with some old fashioned fuzzed out punk rock, including a cover of Thin Lizzy's "Jailbreak," of all things. And the Inseams played after us. They also took things back to early punk rock, with raw riffs and catchy choruses. Turns out, I met their drummer about 20 years ago through his brother-in-law, who was a college friend of mine. Hadn't seen him in almost that long. It's cool to make connections like that.

The only damper on the evening came at the very end of the night. I found out that Mike Grimes, the drummer of Liverball (Buck's other band, which also includes Ray from Trash Magnet) died the day before from a brain aneurysm. He was about my age. It's a goddam tragedy. He was a good egg.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

New things on the Beatles' White Album.

Playing right now: The Beatles - Yellow Submarine (the same copy that I bought when I was in third grade. Basically a throwaway album, it nevertheless contains two of George Harrison's best songs.)

Since my birthday, I've digressed into a classic rock/classic oldies state of mind. A friend of mine from work gave me a handful of albums that includes Pink Floyd's Ummagumma, Steve Miller's The Joker and Fleetwood Mac's Then Play On (which I discussed at length with Jim Lingo last night). In eighth grade I loved Floyd and had every album up to The Wall except More. I later sold almost all of them. Ummagumma was one I had on a cassette dub and I later taped over it. Even during my anti-floyd days, I held fond memories of the live half of the album. So imagine my surprise when I listened to it and it sounded kind of dull. What happened?

The Joker was an album I owned around the same time as Yellow Submarine. Every six months I get a craving to hear the opening riff of "Sugar Babe" but never so much that I go to Jerry's to buy it. Glad to have it again.

The Beatles kick of late was motivated by the copy of the newly remastered copy of the White Album that I gotfrom my folks for my birthday. It was on a wish list. I heard it sounds the best of all the new discs, so short of getting the mono box, this was the one I wanted to hear first. And it does sound great. You can feel the individual parts coming together to make the songs whole. It's like they're a real band, not just four iconic figures. Which is probably debatable since the group was falling apart as that album was made.

Here are some key things that are noticeable on the remastered White album:
"Revolution 9" doesn't sound as scary anymore. It just sounds like a bunch of tape loops.
In "Yer Blues," Paul's low E-string is out of tune, or else he's hitting it really hard and making it bend out of tune. (I have a Rickenbacker too, and it's easy to do that.)
The overdubs seem to stand out more. Like the guitars in "Back In the USSR" that hit the high chords in the intro.
There's more I'm sure, but to be honest I've only played it all the way through just once.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

I'm telling you, the Monkees knew what they talking about

Today I turn 42 years old. Every so often, especially since Donovan was born, I tend to look back on things in my life and reassess them. I suppose that's 20/20 hindsight in full effect. In dealing with the public on a daily basis at my job, I also analyze people's comments a lot: are they angry? are they sarcastic? was that just borscht-belt-style delivery?

The other day I was thinking about all this and how it's really hard to view events/people in black or white, like I did when I was in my 20s. Everything's really gray now.

Then it hit me.

Ho-o-o-o-ly crap. It's just like that Monkees song "Shades of Gray," which has always struck me as one of the saddest songs ever. When I was little, it was because the piano and Peter's verse both sounded sad. Now it's because I realize that it was talking about the uncertain state of society in the eyes of youth culture (hey, it sounded funny in my head. Funny and true.) Vietnam. The Great Society.

But 42 years later, it still rings true. It's a timeless concept. (Um, it's also kind of general, but so what.)

Those Monkees knew what they were talking about.

And so did Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who wrote the song.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

CD Review: Chris Potter Underground

Chris Potter Underground

Stephen Byram's cover art is pretty distinctive. It often has a work-in-progress look to it, like some random sketches - squiggles even - has been randomly thrown onto a canvas. Or else someone's canvas has been taken by someone else, who scribbled over it.

In my mind, his work is closely associated with Tim Berne, since he's designed numerous - if not all- the covers for the saxophonist's albums and CDs since the late '80s/early '90s. So it's funny that Byram designed the cover to the latest Chris Potter Underground CD Ultrahang because it too bares something of a resemblance to Berne's work with his Science Friction and Big Satan outfits. Neither group employs a bassist, and Science Friction (if they're even still together; it's hard to keep up with Berne sometimes) uses a similar saxophone/guitar/keyboards/drums instrumentation as Underground. Not so coincidentally, the keyboardist in both bands is Craig Taborn. (Big Satan foregoes the keys.)

Although both groups operate in the settings of herky-jerky melodies that take listeners on long bumpy rides, Chris Potter's writing is nowhere near as convoluted (in the positive sense) as that of Tim Berne. In fact, Ultrahang is almost a funk album. Not funk as in laying down badass grooves created strictly for dancefloor enjoyment and what comes later, but music that has funk at its core. Adam Rogers frequently pops his strings like a funk bassist, adding emphasis behind Potter's tenor. He also bends and slides around some metallic notes during the title track, as if to say he could fill in for Marc Ducret in Berne's band if he felt like it.

The funk also becomes evident during the solo passages of tracks like "Rumples" and "Facing East" when the band kicks into a vamp that can get pretty vicious between Nate Smith's drums and the Taborn/Rogers axis. "Rumples" in fact comes closest to a straight theme with sprays of 16th notes over a 4/4 groove. Compared to the other tracks, it's almost conventional, and worth nothing that it's one of the few tracks not written by Potter but by Rogers.

Potter continues to astound, not only as a bandleader (or catalyst, really) but as a writer and soloist. Before the multi-leveled "Interstellar Signals" closes out the program with a blend of ballad and free improvisation, the saxophonist excels with intense workouts like "Boots" and "Times Arrow," the latter marked by a fast, staccato flurry of tongued notes during a solo that he ends with a honk. After blowing a tenor solo in "Facing East," he returns after Rogers' solo with the bass clarinet to adjust to the more pensive mood which the song takes at that point.

On previous Underground albums, the band has covered songs by Radiohead and the Beatles, transforming them into things that work in the context of a progressive jazz group. This time around, it's Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe" that gets the treatment. The biggest hook of the song might be Potter's intro to the tune, but the languid, almost country feeling they give to this classic sounds beautiful here.

Music like this proves why Potter has been called one of the most studied (and copied) saxophonists on the planet.

Friday, October 02, 2009

What do the Dagons think?

Last week I bought the Vivian Girls' latest album Everything Goes Wrong. I've read a lot about them, and they even came to the Warhol Museum a few weeks prior. (I missed the show.) Before buying the album, the one song I heard by them online sounded pretty raw and a little noisy, not exactly Blonde Redhead or Deerhoof, but within shouting distance of either of those bands.

The new album is pretty straightforward. Compared to what I expected, it's really straightforward. The sound pretty garage-y and simple: a lot of barre chords drenched in echo with sleepy vocals on top. Guitar solos consist of one string played really quickly.

And they sound almost exactly like the Dagons - a female-fronted band from San Francisco that's been around for about 10 years now. I discovered them when I was putting out my fanzine Discourse in the '90s. They sent me a 7" and kept me on their mailing list from then on. It was the kind of music that was basic, in terms of riffs, but how they executed it made all the difference. Karie Jacobson had a great voice that was like the Shangri-Las on a major "Past Present Future" bender. Or Courtney Love if she calmed the hell down. The music had some serious weight to it. Similar in spirit to Scrawl, who wrote the book on less being more.

As far as I know, the Dagons aren't too well known on a national level (unless you count guys like me who've tracked their history). But they ought to be. So it kind of detracted from the first half of the Vivian Girls album that they have been one of the biggest indie buzz bands for the past 18 months or so when what they do is... fun and good, but not exactly innovative. The preview for their show in a local weekly seemed almost apologetically positive about them, as if to say, "Yeah there's nothing great about them, but they do this simple thing really well." It also pondered why they've gotten so much attention. I'll tell you why: they have good publicists. I get a a lot of emails about them.

Anyhow, by the time I got to the end of the CD, I did like it. It is pretty good and there's a good chance I'll play it more often. But I do wonder whether the Dagons resent them, dig them or don't care.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Most expensive record ever?

Ok, brothers and sisters, explain this to me. Click on the link to eBay here.

$1744 for a freakin' 45? What's the story?! This record isn't even in the Goldmine book. How many dollars is that per inch of vinyl?

And I thought I was crazy for thinking of paying a high price for a Blue Note album or Mosaic box.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Detroit International Jazz Festival- Day Four

Playing right now: Sonny Clark - Sonny's Crib
(The 1990 CD issue. I just noticed a lot of hiss during Clark's piano solo during "With a Song In My Heart." I wonder if that's been eliminated on new editions.)

There was a full day of Jazz Festival activities on Labor Day, but I woke up knowing that things were winding down, so there was a certain bittersweetness to the morning. That and it was starting to look like rain for the first time all weekend. I woke up early because I wanted to take one last look around the vast Marriott at Renaissance Center where I was staying. I walked down to the river to look at the water and the piped in radio was playing Billy Joel's Greatest Hits. It served as a reminder to me that said, "All this great jazz isn't going to last forever, kid. Pretty soon, it's back to Pittsburgh where it's going to be a lot of classic rock and not much else."

Most of my day was going to be taken up by panel talks. But before all that happened, there was the question of breakfast. Jordy wasn't answering his phone so I ran into Dr. Jazz in the lobby, who offered to drive me to a good diner he knew of. The trip ended up being something of a guided tour of Detroit because, with the Labor Day Parade going on, a lot of the streets were blocked off, so getting around proved a challenge. And it being Labor Day, the place where we wanted to go was closed. But the good Doctor pointed out a lot of the sites to me - the Public Library, the Institute of Art, the football and baseball stadiums - many of which were gorgeous and again, made me wish the architect had come to Pittsburgh. Eventually we found a greasy spoon with a killer omelette.

Back at the Pepsi Jazz Tent, Ashley Kahn and Bob Porter discussed the Detroit-New York Connection, talking about and playing music by Thad Jones and Yusef Lateef. Turns out Ashley's writing a book about Blue Note too. Geez, the man is unstoppable.

Across the way, Sean Jones was participating in a recreation of Donald Byrd's A New Perspective album, which had included a vocal choir and a pretty heavy gospel influence. Bassist Rodney Whitaker was leading the group. I think it was happening at the same time as the Detroit-New York talk, so I didn't make it. Wish I had, because the talk about Donald Byrd later in the afternoon dragged on a little long due to the fact that there were too many qualified voices onstage: Sean Jones, Jimmy Heath, Ashley Kahn, Gerald Wilson, to name few. Bob Porter has a great voice but sometimes his matter-of-fact delivery made some strong statements sound a little bland. And when we have this many people onstage, the snippets of music should be just that - snippets. I mean, all of us love the music but we're here at the discussion to hear talk about it. Jimmy Heath's stories about musicians and they're various cars kept things lively though. ("All Sonny Red wanted was to be able to buy a used car. A used car!")

Early in the evening Stefon Harris and Blackout were playing at Carhartt. By that time, a lot of the seats were wet from the rain, so the security guys were wiping them down for people. Beyond that, people didn't seem to mind the weather. We were all trying to get our last kicks out of the festival.

When I sat down, the group was in the middle of a Buster Williams tune called "Christina." Saxophonist Casey Benjamin was wearing one of those strap-on keyboard things that makes one think of Toto, and he was doing the vocoder thing on his voice. It dragged on a little too long and seemed more like a novelty. But after awhile the group kicked in and it sounded pretty cool. Since Black Moth Super Rainbow relies heavily on vocoder, I had to reevaluate my thoughts on the thing. I have the Harris & Blackout album, so I'll have to check out the song.

Harris himself was a wonder to watch, playing so fast that his arms looked like they were performing ballet. "Shake It For Me" had a great choppy feeling that was similar to Monk's "Evidence." During "Tanktified," which was written by drummer Terreon Gully, the group went through some rigourous rhythm shifts and Benjamin was up to his tricks again, this time putting a harmonizer on his horn so he sounded like two saxes soloing in harmony. This group was a good choice for the last day because they really offered a good example of "where the music is going."

In my review of the fest for JazzTimes, I said TS Monk's version "Off Minor" gave me goosebumps. That's not entirely accurate; I actually got a little misty-eyed when they played it. The combination of End-of-the-Festival feelings, the spitting rain and the fact that I was seeing Monk play his dad's stuff...... it was a little much. Plus the arrangement of "Off Minor" from the Town Hall Concert is pretty special to me. That's one of the first Monk albums I bought and I loved the surge of the band in that tune.

The band is technically called Monk on Monk, lead by Thelonious' drum playing son TS. And like his dad, TS isn't trying to fake it here. ("I can't jive or else my father will slap me when I get to the other side," he said between tunes.) He did his homework, making sure that the arrangements were either true to the originals, or updating them in ways that keeps their essence there but takes it to a new level. Case in point for the latter: "'Round Midnight." Everybody has done that song. It's easy to make it just a ballad. Monk "cleared it" with Max Roach and his late mother, and made it upbeat after the slow intro, using the classic code more in the arrangement, enabling the soloist to get back into a chorus for a solo. (This one was done as sextet as opposed to the big band for the rest.)

As far as good example of keeping with the original, they played the version of "Little Rootie Tootie" (which was inspired by young TS) where the whole group played a scored version of Monk's piano solo that he played in original version, released on Prestige.

Later that night in the hotel bar, I approached Monk because I had to tell him how much I dug the set. He was a gracious guy, who is clearly passionate about his father's work. In fact he sat down at a table and kind of gave a sermon to me and one other guy about the whole scope of Monk - how the critics took years to understand him but people took to him immediately; about how jazz is always boxed into different genres unlike rock; etc. It got to a point where I wondered if I was going to be listening to him all night. He only went on for a few minutes and was off with his sax player Willie Williams (like TS, an r&b player first who moved into jazz). It was a good way to finish out my trip, and worth only have three and half hours of sleep before my 5 a.m. lobby call.

Again the shuttle was on time and I got to the airport easily. Thanks, Detroit.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Detroit International Jazz Festival- Day Three

Playing right now: Fred Anderson Trio - Live at the Velvet Lounge

Typically I'd say that only a fool would leave a brunch early, after just one pass through the table of eats. But hearing Wayne Shorter talk is one of the few reasons to cut out early, which is just what I did on Sunday morning. Dr. Jazz presented a nice spread, and there were a number of people there who I would have loved to chat with for a bit, but duty and legend called.

Shorter was doing a talk with Michelle Mercer, who wrote the book Footsteps: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter. (She and I had crossed paths in the elevator at the hotel the night before and she seemed like a good egg.) I had been warned that he has a habit of talking in tangents and not making much sense, and on this morning, he poured on a lot of metaphor but it all connected and made sense to me. He did mention a number of writers and scientists from James Patterson to Tesla and Stephen Hawking, but he also talked about Bud Powell too. And John Wayne. I forget if it was actually a line that Miles Davis liked or Wayne liked, but there's some western picture where a guy tell the Duke that his brother shoots really fast. And Mr. Wayne counters, "Just how fast IS THAT?!" (Read out loud and stress the last two words to get the full effect.) "That's what you do when you play," Shorter explained.

When it came time for Q&A, I asked him how he felt being approached by someone wanting to write a book about him. He stared at me for about five seconds before he spoke, which was a little intimidating. Then he told me to think about something in my life, a very significant event, something that changed my life and presented me with greater responsibilities. That was his reaction to the book idea.

As he was saying this I thought, he's talking about Donovan. He knows exactly where to get me. Damn, Wayne Shorter, you're that perceptive. Sure he was being general and I was thinking specific, but for a moment I felt kind of connected. Maybe there's more to those novels he reads than I want to believe. Regardless, I decided to ask for his autograph when the session was over, something I rarely do.

Other good Wayne quotes: "To me, the word jazz means, 'I dare you.' The idea of jazz is to dare."
"I try to take the best of the past and use it as a flashlight for the unknown. ....Uh oh [Sounds like] Star Trek!" "The greatest present we can give is to give something back."

I saw James and Julia, a couple that were on the Motown Tour, at the talk and we took some time to check out some of the local architecture, including an art deco building that now houses the First National Bank. Then we rode the People Mover, basically a sky bus that goes in a circle around the downtown area. It's pretty cool looking down, even if half the view is abandoned parking lots and boarded up buildings.

Then off to Carhartt Amphitheater to hear trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. Another Detroit veteran - maybe guru would be a better term, due to all the people he's nurtured - he had Geri Allen on piano with him, along with drummer Karriem Riggins, bassist Bob Hurst and tenor saxophonist DeSean Jones. It was a killing band, in large part because of the way Riggins was driving things, throwing out weird times that sounded like four-over-five, or vice versa, on one song. He also stirred up some thunder on his toms. One of Allen's tunes, which may or may not be called "My Graduation Song," had a 32-bar structure with an unending line of notes, like post-modern bebop. Jones was pretty impressive too. I want to find an album by this band.

Then ideas were flowing in a never-ending stream from tenor saxophonist Ernie Krivda over at Mack Avenue Records Pyramid Stage, which was like another amphitheater built into the ground with a stage set up on it. (Why didn't that architect come to Pittsburgh and try to build this kind of park for us?) I only caught about 45 minutes of Krivda's set and he had only played three tunes up that point, and even though at least two of them were warhorses ("A Night in Tunisia" and "'Round Midnight") what he played kept them new and vital. And I'm usually one to say, "Oh geez" when I hear "'Round Midnight." (Especially when the word "About" gets thrown in the title. That's the Miles album, people.) Kudos to pianist Claude Black, bassist Marion Hayden and drummer Renell Gonsalves, known with Krivda as the Detroit Connection. All of them got space to stretch out and they used it well.

In checking out these two sets, I missed out on Charles McPherson, a great sax player who worked with Mingus at one time. There weren't two many times where I had to make tough choices at the Festival, but this was one of them.

The reason I caught only 45 minutes of Krivda was that Gerald Wilson was premiering his Detroit suite that afternoon back at Carhartt. Mr. Wilson might be 91 years old, but he proved his strength and focus during the first tune, when he pushed his music stand off to the side, conducting the big band without any need for charts. Various sections of the piece reminded me of other tunes when I listened to an advance of the studio recording, but it appears that was intentional. Wilson mentioned Benny Golson before doing a section that sounds like "Along Came Betty." "Ms. Gretchen" - an homage to Gretchen Valade - really sounds like a Mingus tune with its swinging A section, and slow thoughtful B section. (Can't remember which Mingus piece, though.) During "Great Detroit River" four of the five trumpets alternated choruses, then traded fours, then twos; and the baritone saxes had a great duel. No wonder Gerald had to scream during the climax.

Before the Wayne Shorter Quartet's performance a few hours later, there was a sense of eager anticipation in the air. Seats were at a premium, even in the VIP section, where they were checking and double-checking badges (and later asking the photogs to move so everyone could see). The band hadn't played together in three months after Danilo Perez injured a tendon in his foot.

They came out onstage, pretty matter of factly and Perez started off with some thunder in the low end of the piano. At first, drummer Brian Blade, armed with mallets, looked like he was in pain, but that look shifted to joy after about ten minutes, and it stayed that way for the next 80 . In fact Blade seemed to be having the time of his life.

His drum cracks sounded like they were bouncing from the p.a. speakers to the stone walls, and the whole quartet was starting to sound louder than the whole Gerald Wilson big band. (I had a bit of a headache coming into this. But I told myself to ignore it since this is a very rare experience and to not let a headache ruin it for me. It kind of worked.)

For about the first 20 minutes (according to my time checks), Shorter played sparingly. In fact he initially seemed like he was ready to jump in, but held off, sensing things were still taking shape, and the time wasn't right. Eventually he really took off, still with some minimal quality to the situation, but proving that sometimes all you need are a few well-placed notes.

Speaking of notes, I stopped taking them after awhile. On one page, I drew a diagram that I thought might help me remember a tune. I recognized a few melodies (definitely "Go," maybe "Schizophrenia," maybe "Sanctuary") but don't hold me to them. I will freely admit that I'm not totally up on all my Shorter material. But it made me want to pull out Beyond the Sound Barrier again and just sit with it and listen, uninterrupted.

When the set was over - about 90 minutes later, with no real breaks between songs - I had to get away from live music for a bit, as did a few other people who I talked to afterwards. That group put a lot out there for us to absorb and it was still sinking in.

Back at the hotel bar, Jordy and I hooked up and he had to look for Danilo, who had been signed to Mack Avenue that night. We looked around the room and there was Mr. Perez sitting in a booth chatting with Ashley Kahn. So we joined them. Instant Party. And the young lions jamming that night weren't half bad either.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Conley talks, Love Letters debut

Yesterday was quite the music day for me. First of all, I got to interview Mission of Burma bassist Clint Conley, for an article that I'm writing for Blurt. As I most likely stated somewhere on this blog at least once since it began, Mr. Conley is part of the reason I'm playing bass. The day I picked out the changes to "This Is Not a Photograph," I decided the four-string was the instrument I should try to play in a band. Although that wasn't a Conley-written tune, I liked most of his songs best in the band.

None of this was mentioned in the interview yesterday. (I always give myself a "Don't Gush" talk before I start. And if there's an opportunity to gush politely, it comes at the end.) This was a smart move because it very likely might have made Clint uncomfortable or at most, he would've offered a polite, "Gee thanks." He probably gets it from enough guys like me on a regular basis.

The interview went really well. He's a great talker and has a good perspective on the Burma "legacy," if you will. Not that I'm going to give anything away now, in hopes that you'll read the piece when it runs (sometime around the release of their new album on October 6). But it kind of blows my mind to think that a guy who was in such a seminal band is very casual about the whole thing. But maybe that says more about me than him.

A few hours after the interview, the Love Letters debuted at the Harvest Party that my workplace sponsored. The funny thing about this show is that it kind of served as a catalyst in getting the band to evolve. After our first practice (which went extremely well, and we barrelled through four songs) I mentioned it to our store's marketing director, to which she suggested that maybe we should play at the party. It was a bit of an effort but we cobbled together eight songs in the weeks leading up to the show. Things were a little sloppy at some points, with a blown chord change here and microphones going in and out, but people didn't seem to notice. We got a pretty enthusiastic response from the audience, many of whom came up to us afterwards to tell us how much they liked it.

As I was setting up my bass, I started playing the riff to "Peking Spring" by Burma. And after we played, the head of my store said he noticed up on it. It's a relatively obscure to so that was impressive that anyone picked up on it.

I'm not at home now (at work early; hopefully car comes back today) so I don't have my scoop pad w/notes from Detroit, so I can't give you Day Three yet. BUT IT'S COMING REALLY. I STILL REMEMBER WHAT WENT DOWN. WHEN YOU READ IT YOU'LL KNOW WHY.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Detroit International Jazz Festival- Day Two

After checking out a panel discussion on Elvin Jones, it was time to check out another Jones - Sean. I've seen him play numerous times in Pittsburgh and wrote about him for City Paper but this was the first time I've seen the trumpeter with his regular group, with Orrin Evans (piano), Brian Hogans (alto sax), Vincente Archer (bass) and Josh Davis (drums). They played a lot of tunes from his latest album The Search Within, but they also played a version of "Resolution" from Coltrane's A Love Supreme, that was astounding. Everyone was firing on all cylinders. Jones was wailing, Hogans went on such an extended tear that the rhythm section dropped out, just like McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison did for Trane.

Jones likes to go into the upper register during solos, sometimes bending those notes with his lips. But he never uses those high notes to show off. They're connected to a greater idea in his solos.

I had to cut out a few minutes before the end of their set because Dave Brubeck was playing at the Carhartt Amphitheatre. And these shows were all starting right on time, so I didn't want to be late. However I was still late because Brubeck started a few minutes early.

Dave and the band were sight to see: four older cats all with silver hair, all wearing shades. Alto saxophonist Bobby Militello had a bit of a Santa Claus look going (with the recent passing on Joe Maneri, the world needs another saxophonist who could pass for St. Nick), a jolly and plump fella blowin' a horn. Dave looked pretty good for a guy who had to cancel shows earlier this year because of illness. And his hands were flying over that piano, doing that patented Brubeck time changing thing (is it 3 over 4?) during solos, getting audience members to yell, "My man!" during a blues solo, and opening "Yesterdays" with a dramatic rubato that really seemed to come from the heart.

I've seen him play "Take Five" before but never "Blue Rondo a la Turk." So I got goosebumps when the band - which by then included Dave's sons Chris (trombone) and Danny (drums) and their bandmates - kick into that bouncy riff. During his solo in that tune, Dave quoted "Button Up Your Overcoat." That guy is still sharp.

Later that night I kept turning around and seeing Chris Brubeck at the bar and was tempted to talk to him. I didn't, because anything I said would come out sounding like, "Your dad is soooooooo cool." And I had only caught the last couple minutes of the Brubeck Brothers' set before Sean Jones came on, so I felt funny about that.

I think it was at the Brubeck show that I caught up with my friends Mike and Shaunna, he of the Tribune Review and she of WDUQ. They don't have cellphones so it could've been hard to find them, but like most of the weekend, everything came together.

Later that night we wound up going to see Bennie Maupin's Dolphyana. He played the omnipresent bass clarinet on Bitches Brew and worked as a sideman with Horace Silver and Lee Morgan, before joining Herbie Hancock for a number of albums that include Headhunters. His group tonight had him on bass clarinet and tenor, Nestor Torres (flute), Jay Hogarth (vibes, marimba) Billy Hart (drums) and Darek Oles (bass).

They played a couple Dolphy tunes including: "Out To Lunch," which sounded great and obtuse; "245" which wasn't as dirty as the original but just as good; the equally abstract "The Madrig Speaks the Panther Walks." The original Maupin works were also pretty fascinating, especially the closing "Prophet's Motifs" which was Dolphyesque but also morphed through different rhythms including a funk beat. That was the closing tune and the only one, unfortunately, where the sound seemed perfectly balanced. A guy who I met on the Motown tour told me he agreed that the mix was really unbalanced, with the flute sounding distorted and that it seemed like Maupin was doing most of the mixing himself.

Back at the hotel bar, bedlam ensued. People were cutting in front of people who had been waiting 10 minutes for a drink. And musicians who looked like they were 13 years old were playing at the jam session. It was loud there. After two drinks, I went back to my room, tried to go to sleep but not before watching a Law and Order:SVU rerun and almost staying up until 4 a.m. watching American Graffiti.

Detroit- The Motown Museum

It didn't hit me until we were in the makeshift theater that I was actually sitting in the building where all the classic Motown singles were made. The room was clearly a converted recording studio room, with walls built specifically to accentuate or deflect sound bouncing around the room. So who knows who once stood where I was sitting?

On Saturday morning, Dr. Jazz, a Detroit jazz promoter affiliated with the Detroit International Jazz Festival, charted a van for anyone who wanted to get the tour of the Motown Museum, which is located at 2648 West Grand Boulevard - the same place where the music was recorded. The neighborhood looks like a regular residential area that just happens to have a building with "Home of the Hits" written in script above its front windows. The guys who were giving the tour were really good, too, offering a lot of information without bogging it down with long lists of names or song titles, or just zapping the life out of the history. They really did a good job of letting you know how Berry Gordy started this enterprise, how he kept it going and how the music sounded so good. In other words, they let you know why you should care.

Studio A was the last stop on the tour, which makes sense because that's the most compelling place in the building. That's where all the recordings were done. And there are nearly lifesize pictures on the wall of Stevie Wonder and the Supremes at sessions, so naturally the tour guide (somehow "docent" doesn't seem appropriate at this museum) made some of the ladies do a Supremes formation, some of the guys do the Temps and one of the kids do a Stevie Wonder head wave right in the spots where the originals did it. Group participation usually isn't cool on a tour, but again, there's no tour like this one.

Best line of the tour: Q: What do you call a singer who can't do the Temptations dance? A: A Four Top.

Among the people on this tour, along with me and Jordy, was Ashley Kahn, who among other things wrote the book A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album. And a book about Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. And one about Impulse Records. And he writes for JazzTimes. This is the man I want to be.

Of course I didn't tell him that when I introduced myself. Or any other time over the weekend. I tried to play it cool. So the cat's out of the bag if he finds this.

He was nice enough to take my picture a couple times in front of the museum. I foolishly didn't bring my camera so all I had was my cellphone. I thought the lint that's all over the lense created that Penthouse look, but I actually think it's the sun coming over the building. The second one looks better. After he took this one below, Ashley deadpanned, "You know you're five minutes late for work." Mr. Gordy's gonna whup me.
Then it was back to the hotel and back to the festival.


The upcoming posts will focus more on the music, I promise.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Detroit International Jazz Festival- Day One

It's been eight days since my adventure at the Detroit International Jazz Festival began, but it's taken that long for all the thoughts in my brain to settle, so that I can tell you what happened. (Actually I didn't have time to start blogging until my write-up for JazzTimes was finished, but the first thing sounded better.)

JazzTimes picked me to be the writer who would cover the festival for the magazine. Marking its 30th year, it was a pretty collasal event, with music going almost non-stop.

As I sat in the Pittsburgh airport with two hours to kill before my plane left (who'd'a thunk I'd get through security that quickly?), I realized that this would only be my fourth trip on a plane. I'm more of a train kind of guy, but that takes a long time and the cost of my flight was taken care of for me.

When I finally touched down in Detroit, I wasn't exactly sure where to go because there was supposed to be a driver ready to pick me up. But no one working in the airport knew where the Jazz Festival shuttle was. It was at that point that I got a call from one of the media guys saying that "they're looking for you at the airport." Me?! They know who I am? Oh yeah, I am a published writer and I know something about the music so that amounts to something. The guy in the call directed me to Passenger Pickup, where I could find the shuttle, and when the other person who was getting a ride showed up, we were whisked off to the hotel.

The swell festival volunteer directed me to where I was to check in with the hotel and with the festival itself, and I found out I had a VIP badge and a press badge so I could go upfront at all the shows. I also met my new friend Jordy who would be my running buddy for most of the weekend.

After hanging out in my room for a bit, looking at Caesar's Palace across the Detroit River in Windsor, trying to catch a bit of a nap (not possible after all the coffee I had that morning), I headed to the Pepsi Jazz Talk Tent where Hank Jones was appearing. Now the theme of the festival was "Keepin' Up with the Joneses," meaning Hank and his brothers Elvin and Thad. So his lineage and his age (91) made Hank a worthy honoree. With all that he's done, you'd hope that the person interviewing him would ask some good leading questions. Maybe "What was Charlie Parker really like at that Verve session" might not sound good, but I bet the answers would be. Instead, a lot of the queries were pretty general and phrased like yes-or-no questions.

Later I went to a VIP event where I met a writer who grew up about three blocks from me in Pittsburgh. That could only happen to someone from my town too. Gary Graff is about 7 years older than me (I know because he graduated from high school the same year as my brother Pete) and a good egg. He knows a lot about music but he's not high and mighty about it. No more sarcastic than I am, which I like. He took me and Jordy to the Dirty Dog, a restaurant that had a tent set up near the Chase Main Stage where Hank Jones was playing that night. We waiting forever for our server to take our orders and then waiting forever and a day for the food to come.

While all this was going on, the festival was starting and Hank Jones was getting a proclamation from the mayor of Detroit. Gretchen Valade, the grand dame or fairy godmother of the festival (and I mean that in a good way, in case you're reading this Gretchen; you're the tops) told Hank, "You're playing is so elegant and spiritual, it makes me cry. And I think everyone agrees." When Hank started playing it became clear that Gretchen was right on. His touch was so precise, with the right amount of subtlety and thunder, it was astounding. One of the tunes he played with Wes Montgomery's "Twisted Blues," which has a pretty complex melody. And Hank chewed up it. A couple people thought Hank was being held back because his regular drummer, Willie Jones III wasn't with him, replaced by Carl Allen. But I thought they all swung like hell, with bassist George Mraz in between them.

I kind of lost track of Jordy and Gary in a quest for coffee and a bathroom (not necessarily in that order). Chick Corea was up next, with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White joining him. I guess you could call them Return to Almost Forever, since all that was missing from the RTF equation was Al Di Meola. And electric instruments. Chick stuck to acoustic piano and Stanley played upright bass.

Someone in the audience yelled out "500 Miles High" and that RTF tune kicked off the set, coincidentally. The soundperson was getting a lot of feedback from one of the instruments and I was afraid Chick was going to rip their head off. He did walk over and talk to the person working sound, but he seemed cool about it. In fact he and Stanley were doing a lot of smiling while they played. Stanley seemed to pick up on the vibe of "I Mean You," doing his own kind of Monk-like solo. Of course it wasn't long before he started doing that double-time slapping thing he likes to do. Chick also got some Monk-isms going in a later tune that sounded like it could've been "Evidence" or "Straight No Chaser." They were definitely tight and swinging, but overall I couldn't get completely into them. Maybe it was the lack of sleep that was catching up with me.

As I walked through the blocked off streets by the stage, it astounded me that so many people had come out for the show. It was the equivalent of Pittsburghers coming to Point State Park for Fourth of July fireworks. For the ones who couldn't see the stage, there was a huge jumbotron held high over the stage for everyone else to see.

I went back to the hotel after they were over, and the jam session was in full effect. I didn't see anyone I knew (musician or writer or publicist), so rather than getting a drink and falling asleep in it, I decided it was time to hit the hay. After all, I had to get up early for the tour of the Motown Museum. More on that next time.