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.