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.