Friday, December 31, 2010

Best albums of 2010... sort of

So I decided to check out what my, uh, peers at Blurt included in their year-end lists, if only to make sure I didn't forget some great album that wowed me back in May that I completely forgot about. Turns out, I'm really out of touch when it comes to rock albums this year. I mean really out of touch. I own about two of the albums that made their Top 50 list. The rest of them I either didn't know about or only read about. Or in the case of Joanna Newsom, I just ran the other way. With all that time I spent keeping abreast of jazz albums, I became clueless re: the big releases of 2010. Except of course for the Arcade Fire. Duh.

But, um, didn't the New Pornographers release a new album this year? Sure, any shanleyonmusic reader knows that I'll love it BUT DIDN'T ANYONE ELSE?

So here's my list.....

1. Pernice Brothers - Goodbye Killer (Ashmont). To put it effusively, Joe Pernice is one of the best lyricists around. He knows how to tell a story, which sounds like a writer's cliche, but when you listen to him, you realize why people say that line in all sincerity.

2. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs (Merge). This is probably the first and last time a #1 Billboard album will ever make my year-end list (well, maybe Double Fantasy would've counted), but everything everyone says about this album is true. And though I didn't grow up in the suburbs, I do relate to the feeling of your past slipping away as you cling heavily to it. And the trick with that online video? Brilliant.

3. New Pornographers - Together (Matador). Surprise, surprise. After 2007's Challengers, which dipped a little too much into the mid-tempo department, this album came back and found the group sounding pretty solid and upbeat.

4. Nels Cline - Dirty Baby (Cryptogramophone). It's not really a rock album. But it's not really a jazz album either, though both downbeat and JazzTimes gave it a glowing review. It's a work of art in itself AND it sounds good. Refer to my review on this site for more details.

5. Kathryn Calder - Are You My Mother? (File Under: Music) In which the keyboardist of the New Pornographers shows that she has some great songwriting ideas up her sleeve that everyone would be fools to ignore her (yeah, that's a hint to you). This album is beautiful and at times poignant.

6. Nellie McKay - Home Sweet Mobile Home (Verve). A lot of times I get really really into an artist's album while writing about it, only to cool off after the deadline is met. Though the faux-reggae and salsa almost gets too clever for its own good, McKay's new album holds it together, with lyrical depth (with claws out, in some cases) and hooks that I wish I wrote.

7. Susan Cowsill - Lighthouse (Threadhead) OK, this actually made the Blurt list at #50. Much of its weight rests on "River of Love" the genuinely moving tribute to both Susan's brother Barry (who wrote the song) and the power of love in general, but you can't argue with a power like this. For awhile I thought I was reading too much personal stuff into it - my bandmate's father's death, the eventual death of a close friend - but not so. This song is heavy. And the album proves that when life deals you a shitty hand, there's only one thing to do - Get up the next day and work your way back.

8. Moby Grape - Live (Sundazed). It's more a historical album than one that should be in a "new" list, but it makes you realize that as good as the Grape was on its first album, they were even better live. And when I say "better," I mean "with few peers."

9. Richard Barone - Glow (Bar/None). The one-time singer of the Bongos returns with an album of pure pop, in all its splendour.

Ok, let's leave it at that. I'll be honest, I wanted to include Azure Ray's Drawing Down the Moon on the list because I remember really enjoying it when I reviewed it for Blurt. But the band's label couldn't be bothered to send me anything more than a stream of the album, so I haven't heard it since I wrote the review in July. Hey guys, I'm not going to sell your CDs. If you really want to make sure of that, just watermark them. Hell, don't even do it. Just say you did and slap a sticker on it saying that I'll be in big trouble if I do anything with the CD. If I like the music, I'll hold onto it. If I don't I'LL THROW IT AWAY. There are already plenty of good CDs that I don't listen to cluttering up my house. I might as well just pitch the lousy ones. Or maybe I should mail them back to you.

Anyhow, that's my warped view of 2010 releases.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

End of the Year Lists

With the end of the year comes Best Albums of the Year lists. For the second year in a row, I had the honor of being tapped for the Village Voice's tally of best jazz albums of the year, in addition to my annual contribution to JazzTimes.

Funny thing - this year, I felt like I was fairly on top of things, hearing a lot of the "big deal" releases, as well as some really great ones that were flying under the radar. Still, I was hard-pressed to think, "Yeah, that one ought to be on my list" as I considered a number of them. Then there were some albums that I didn't get ahold of until after the deadline had passed, that would have definitely been on the list. (Jason Adasiewicz's Sun Rooms, most recently. When we got back into town after Christmas, that and the latest Exploding Star Orchestra album were waiting for me!)

Don't listen to the naysayers who keep saying that the music industry is dying. My friend Will made the astute observation several months ago that despite all those alarmist articles, you keep seeing deluxe 180-gram vinyl reissues by labels like Four Men With Beards, while I keep trying to keep abreast of things like the latest amazing ECM release, as well as the latest hijinks from folks like Mr. Adasiewicz and his Chicago peers. There's still plenty of music coming out. Maybe there just aren't as many people who care passionately about music as there was 20 years ago.

Anyhow, I'm digressing. Here's a link to the Voice, with a couple interesting overviews of the year and its music.

STOP THE PRESSES...............................................
I just went to the JazzTimes website to look for some year-end stuff, and came upon this obituary for Dr. Billy Taylor, who died on Tuesday. There is a huge void in the world now without him. The world lost too many musicians this year. Goddam.

Okay, back on topic....... here's the critic's list from JazzTimes. Scroll down and see my list, some of which might be familiar to anyone who reads this blog.

Finally, here's a review of a song-by-song reworking of the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat by a group that includes most of Mostly Other People Do the Killing. It came out last summer, but I didn't get around to reviewing it until recently.

On the rock side of things, I didn't get my End of the Year list into Blurt, so I'm going to fashion one here and put that up tonight. Maybe after a drink or two.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

CD Review - Sarah Wilson - Trapeze Project

Sarah Wilson
Trapeze Project
Singer-instrumentalists usually need to beware. When push comes to shove, the voice always seems to get prominence over the instrument. Just ask Diana Krall or, for that matter, Karen Carpenter (who apparently swung pretty hard when she didn't have a mike in front of her, according to a CD that surfaced a few years ago). And of course, more people remember Nat "King" Cole's velvet voice and overlook how he tore the house down at the first few Jazz at the Philharmonic shows with his piano work.

Trumpeter Sarah Wilson takes a few vocal turns on her second album, Trapeze Project, which dropped back in September. What's interesting about her double-duty is how she approaches both of them in a similar manner. Her trumpet tone is strong and crisp, and she plays her themes without much extra dressing. The same can be said about her singing style. When Wilson's voice appears, doing a wordless support vocal in "She Stands in a Room," it adds extra depth to a simple, pretty melody. (As someone who usually abhors the dreaded wordless vocals, I found this one really captivating; similar in a way to what Hank Roberts did with Tim Berne in the '80s.)

Wilson puts down the trumpet and sings lyrics in "Melancholy for Peace" and "From the River." Despite some simplistic imagery, she delivers the lyrics in a direct and honest way that elevates them and maintains attention. In the early part of the former song, she phrases a little like Suzanne Vega, but her voice takes on more grit. A cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" casts the moody post-punk classic as a slow, lounge tune with just bass and some clarinet flourishes. It was bound to end up being done jazz style sometime and although there isn't any nudge-nudge irony that might come from a Bad Plus interpretation, the jury is still out on this one
Along with the similarity between her horn and voice, Wilson's greatest skills seem to be arranging and composing. She assembled a top-flight band of Myra Melford (piano), Ben Goldberg (clarinet), Jerome Harris (bass) and Scott Amendola (drums). Wilson's trumpet (occasionally muted) and Goldberg's clarinet blend into some amazing sounds, sometimes like an oboe or soprano sax. The melodies reside in fairly simple melodic territory, like the bright folky melody of "Blessing." Then Goldberg steals the show as he nearly derails the consonance of it, with Amendola providing the appropriate kick. In "Possibility," it's Melford's turn to run wild, tearing up another upbeat melody.

All the above moments work well, but Wilson the soloist frequently takes a backseat to her bandmates. In the final quarter of the album she barely stands out at all. When she does solo in other tracks, her tone is strong but she plays it melodically safe. There's nothing wrong with that, especially with all that Wilson coaxes out of the group, but it feels like she's holding back when she has more to say.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

CD review: Dynamaxion Quartet - Sympathetic Vibrations

(I started writing this review early last week, but fell asleep at the laptop. The next day, I had a fever of 100, then Christmas came. Hope everyone reading this had a good holiday. I'm much better know. I think.)
The Dynamaxion Quartet
Sympathetic Vibrations

Some musician - Frank Zappa or Elvis Costello, depending on who you ask - once said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. " It's a clever statement, but like "Jazz is dead," it really has no value other than to rile people up unnecessarily.

The Dynamaxion Quartet has come together in an effort not to dance about architecture but to actually play it, in a matter of speaking. The group takes its big inspiration from architect/inventor/"practical philosopher" R. Buckminster Fuller. Their name in fact comes from a word Fuller invented after discovering that he used the words "dynamic," "maximum" and "tension" frequently. Drummer Gabriel Gloege, the composer and guiding force in the quartet, has attempted to harness Fuller's confluence of ideas by having the band create a sound that goes beyond the limits of a standard chordless quartet. The pieces don't strictly follow a head-solos-head structure. Tenor saxophonist Mark Small and trumpeter Michael Shobe wind up playing over each other in several of the tracks. In "At One," they start out trading eights, then fours, then ones until they're right on top of one another. This never comes across as busy or overly analytical, and although it doesn't sound unprecedented by other pianoless quartets, the music is always moving and never spare.

Rhythmic displacement keeps "Night Market" shifting. Small begins played a seven-note riff in 5/4, which he regularly tosses to Shobe when the tenor takes a solo. Underneath Gloege plays time signatures that keep changing where the downbeat falls in the riff. Repetitive pieces like this can grate after a few minutes, but this one leaves the listener so interested in where things will land that there's no time for it to wear out its welcome.

In his quest to give all his bandmates equal footing, Gloege frequently gives bassist Dan Fabricatore an equal voice in the melody. "Spring Equinox" begins with his bass leading the way before the horns come in. Later, as he does in a few other tracks, Fabricatore plucks his solos with a lot of authority in his tone. "Summer's End" also has an interesting beginning and end, with a slow hymn-like melody sandwiching Gloege's off-kilter groove that feels like 8/8.

For further thematic influence with Sympathetic Vibrations, Gloege drew on the work of photographer Asca S. R. Auli. He spent in year in Hong Kong, Paris and Manhattan, taking pictures of all sorts of scenes, which illustrated each city while still leaving some details unclear, a quality that appealed to the drummer. The nine tracks on the album are broken up into three sections, each named for the city.

While aesthetic concept seems to factor heavily into this album, it isn't mandatory to know the backstory of the work, nor does it really elevate it any further. The Dynamaxion Quartet is creating their own niche for a two-horns-and-rhythm quartet, one that doesn't need to probe into the Ornette approach, but who knows how the tear it up with a fresh take on bop (closer "Fulton Fish Market," which cleverly sandwiches a line from "Criss Cross" into its theme) when they feel like it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas songs and the war

I've been bombarded with Christmas music since the weekend after Thanksgiving. Yes, there are times when I've said that I will be glad when December 26 comes, so I won't have to hear it for another year. But that's largely due to the very limited scope that these piped-in stations have. Why do play four versions of "Baby It's Cold Outside" during an eight-hour period? Louie Prima's "What Will Santa Claus Say" is great - but the same question applies. I realize these stations are limited in their scope, but jeez oh pete.

On the other hand, we've heard a lot more Johnny Mathis this year than last year. Two of my co-workers and I used to regularly get on the store p.a. and dedicate any Johnny song to the other two whenever he came on. Now he comes on so much that the joke would be old and unfunny if we kept up. But hearing him is a good thing. It puts me in a good frame of mind to work and to think of the good things about the holidays.

Since the station that's usually played is limited to big band swing and recent stuff that fits that format, I've yet to hear the Royal Guardsmen's "Snoopy's Christmas." Stop me if I've blogged about this before, but I notice a detectable subtext in that song that elevates it from its status as a cornball bubblegum hit - and the third installment in a set of songs based on a cartoon character.

Observe - in 1914 as World War I was going on, British and German soldiers on the battleground held a ceasefire on Christmas day and celebrated the holiday together with a dinner. In the song by the Royal Guardsmen, the Red Baron has a chance to shoot Snoopy down, but instead he tells him to land and "Snoopy was certain that this was the end/when the Baron cried out, 'Merry Christmas, my friend.'" And they too have dinner together.

Released in 1967 as the Viet Nam war was raging, the song could be considered as a statement about the mood of that era, even though it's about as far from "Eve of Destruction" as you could get. And today as a useless war continues, there's something emotional about this song to me.

Also the pay-off line in "I'll Be Home for Christmas" - "If only in my dreams" - has a little more gravity when thinking about soldiers who can't make it back for the holiday, much like the World War II soldier that was probably meant to be the focus of that song. (The line in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that changes depending on the version - about "Come next year we all will be together... until then we'll have to muddle through somehow," - could be about the same thing. But I think it might come from the Judy Garland movie Meet Me in St. Louis, so it has a different meaning.)

Or maybe this steady stream of holiday tunes is just putting this in my head too much.

And another thing, how often does Bobby Vinton really spend "Christmas Eve in My Home Town," aka Canonsburg?

On my homefront, the needle on our turntable got bent and I didn't get to order a new one in time for the holidays. So we can't play any vinyl, which means I probably won't hear the Monterey Brass album (see my oft-spammed Sing a Kris Kringle Jingle entry from a few years ago) outside of my head this year.

But at least I had a chance to turn Donovan onto the Singing Dogs' "Jingle Bells," which also makes me remember my friend Pam fondly.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

New York Times catches up with me

Playing right now: Puttin' On the Ritz - White Light/White Heat

(Check out the JazzTimes website in a day or two for an explanation)

I'll never admit that my reviews are extremely timely, appearing the same week as a disc is released, but I was quite surprised that I covered an album several weeks before the Sunday New York Times. This past weekend, Nate Chinen wrote a capsule review of Ches Smith & These Arches' debut album - which I reviewed on November 24! Imagine that: me, a few weeks ahead of the prestigous Times, beating a guy like Mr. Chinen to the punch.

What was even more surprising is that one week earlier, the Times ran a similar capsule-size review of the debut album by Bizingas, another New York weird/jazz/improv group, which also features Smith as drummer. Chances are that review came from another writer, because that spot has a different writer each week. I'm hoping to get to Bizingas here too.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

New Anthony Braxton, with Ben Opie

Playing right now: Mike Reed's Loose Assembly - Empathetic Parts (482 Music)
(Just the thing to get you moving in the morning, especially with guest star Roscoe Mitchell on board. I ordered it and it came in the mail yesterday.)

Yesterday Ben Opie stopped by my workplace and handed me a copy of the eagerly-anticipated duets that he recorded with Anthony Braxton while he was here in 2008. It's a two-disc set of two Braxton compositions, with a few extra writings dropped in.

I probably should hold off on details and save that for a review, but I will say it's good. Ask Ben the next time you see him.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Nellie McKay hugged me.....twice

Sometimes talking to musicians inspires me to take on the persona of a starry-eyed fan. Or maybe that mindset is constantly below my mental surface at all times. Either way it explains the title of this entry, which exists with tongue firmly wedged in cheek, as Ms. McKay would hopefully expect.

Anytime I introduce myself to a musician after having interviewed them by phone and then writing about them, I always wonder about two things - will they remember me among a sea of recent interviewers, and will they object to what I wrote about them? So it was a nice surprise when Nellie McKay stood up from her spot at the merchandise table, leaned across and gave me an appreciative hug after her first show at the Warhol on Saturday. She was as charming offstage as she was on.

And her first show, where she played tunes from Normal As Blueberry Pie - A Tribute to Doris Day overflowed with charm. And clever arrangements. It was great to hear those songs done by a small group and not only bring out all the nuances of the writing, but do that while keeping the focus on the vocals. She had guitar, bass, drums, trumpet and tenor sax along with her piano, though the horns only played here and there (they had just joined the tour very recently). When they did "Sentimental Journey," it sounded nice and slinky, with mallets on the drums and Bill Frisell-ish guitar from Cary Park - yet all music pointed towards Nellie. She played one non-LP song that had something in the lyrics about "early autumn" which sounded amazing, both as a song and starkly beautiful performance.
The one time things veered towards the cute side occurring during "A-Tisket A-Tasket," which was built for that anyway. McKay got a little squeaky during the call-and-response section with the guys. Right before this song she also quipped that not only could she not find the museum (they were late getting back from their Green Tree hotel), she could find the piano as she stumbled away from the center stage mike to her keyboard. (See previous Nellie installment for reference.)
For the second show McKay changed from the proper, Doris Day-inspired pink dress to a dark red get-up that fell off the shoulder and fit the mood but still would've looked okay on Ms. Day. She virtually played her new Home Sweet Mobile Home album from start to finish, which is fine because it's a really strong release. "Bruise on the Sky" makes an excellent, foreboding opener (with a line that rhymes "follow" with "Charo") and leads right into the uke-driven "Adios" with its biting chorus line, "May you lie yourself to sleep tonight." When she does reggae, it has serious weight to it, and even the light-hearted "Bodega!" (which has an inverted exclamation point at the beginning) has some serious moral underneath.
I was worried during the slick funky "No Equality" when the band took a right turn and launched into a scorching version of "Purple Haze," and McKay started doing hippie hand jive moves (not the first time during the set). If she starts trying to rock out, this could be bad, I thought. Turns out it was just a digression before hitting the last riff of the original song. That changed everything from a potential train wreck to a witty coda.
McKay has the between-song banter down pat. She talked about her dog Charo - the one referenced in "Bruise on the Sky" - describing her as being very much like Joan Crawford, going on to imitate the dog doing a classic bit from The Damned Don't Cry. Later she made bassist Alexi David do an imitation of William Shatner reciting "Till There Was You," which was spot-on. She also forgot the words to some of the non Mobile Home songs that worked their way into the set. Yes, she's prolific as all get-out but when I was her age, I never forgot lyrics. Those tunes included "David" from her first album, which drew applause as it started, and "The Dog Song."
I was the first person to the merch table and she started to tell me that if I'm ever in New York to look her up, or she'd buy me a drink if I wanted one.... I wanted both but there was a line forming, led by a guy who was already holding her hand, so I put her off.
Which blows because I could've used another drink.
Call me, Nellie. Your publicist has my number.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Nellie McKay outtakes

Nellie McKay is playing in Pittsburgh tomorrow at the Warhol Museum. I previewed the show for Pittsburgh City Paper and you can find it here.

Since it was a short article, a lot of good quotes were left on the cutting room floor, so to speak. My favorite is this one, when I asked her about "No Equality," a song from her new album that sounds like a mix of '70s soul and Schoolhouse Rock to these ears.

Me: "No Equality" - are you singing from the perspective of someone who dumping someone else rather than someone who got dumped?

Nellie: Oooooh no, it’s not that specific. I think it’s more general than that. It’s about hierarchy. It doesn’t have to be a personal relationship. It can be with any group of people. There always seems to be a pecking order.
I’m constantly thinking about society and the world and how to…somehow avoid that. The only way I can think of is if everybody has constant marijuana use. It’s a very peaceful drug. I think that eliminates hierarchy quite a bit, or at least makes you don’t care about it.

Me: So you’re going on record here as being pro-pot?

Nellie: Yeah, I don’t that’s much of a revelation. My mother got busted at Burbank airport earlier this year and I’ve never been prouder of her.

Dave's not here.

Then again, I'm not sure what to believe. When she mentioned that she came to Pittsburgh during high school with the All State Band - or something like that - I asked her what year, and she told me 1972 in a voice that implied, "I don't want to give my age away."

She wasn't born until 12 years later. In the back of my mind I knew something was up but didn't feel ready to call her on it.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

CD Review: Henry Threadgill Zooid: This Brings Us To, Volume II

Henry Threadgill Zooid
This Brings Us To, Vol. II

On "Polymorph," the fourth of five tracks on the new Henry Threadgill album, the AACM veteran and his quintet hit upon a theme that has a slightly repetitive shape to it. The other tracks have sections that could be considered heads, because they feel different from the moments where several players are improvising over one another (around one another may be a more accurate description). Threadgill's entrances in each piece bring things together after everyone's multi-directional blowing, but his alto saxophone in "Polymorph" is the one place where he sticks with one concise idea and restates it a few times. After listening intently to Zooid, this moment almost feels like a reward.

Pi Recordings released Volume 1 of This Brings Us To last year, and the follow-up comes from the same sessions. This is not simple music, and clearly the touring the group did prior these sessions sharpened up their cohesive qualities. Drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee and bassist Stomu Takeishi are definitely into a groove on the opening 10-minute "Lying Eyes," but not the traditional in-the-pocket kind of way. Kavee accents and supports, and it's hard to feel a time signature in his playing, while Takeishi plays intense assymetrial lines in the title track with a strong intensity.

The perplexing thing about the album is that its leader doesn't come across as such. If given a blindfold test, most people might think this is a Liberty Ellman album. The guitarist (who also keeps popping up as a top notch studio engineer on numerous albums, by the way) always seems to be the one at the front of each piece leading the group. Threadgill on the other hand, lays back. He plays a brief flute line early on "Lying Eyes" and returning later for a solo with a lot of open space between phrases. He doesn't show up until the final few minutes of the title track to steer things towards Jose Davila's tuba coda.

This is only a criticism if one expects something clear cut and easy to digest, and Threadgill is not the type to do that anyway. It's better than to try and discern what course that this band is taking. It almost makes you want to hear each instrumentalist isolated to clearly hear what they play and how it relates to the quintet. Or how it contrasts and still works.

The last track on the album is titled "It Never Moved," ironically because it does move. Davila (who also doubles on trombone) gets into a groove with Kavee, and Threadgill and Ellman play parallel solos before the guitarist really takes off in a pithy statement. Most of the album up until this point sticks the same middle ground dynamic level, the only real problem with the set because that levels off some of the intensity and makes the ballad-like moments feel just as subdued as the more pointed ones.

But again, Threadgill is not here to make it easy. He's here to intrigue, which this album does with each deep investigation.

[Addendum: There some word or phrase in this review that has made it subject to numerous spams of all types. I'm dismantling the comment section because even though Blogger deletes them immediately, I'm getting tired on the endless barrage of emails which include the comments.]

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

CD Review: Nels Cline - Dirty Baby

Nels Cline
Dirty Baby
(If you don't have the attention span for a long-winded review, skip to the last paragraph.)

Two double-CD releases in one calendar year is enough to raise eyebrows, even when the artist releasing them is guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline. (His Nels Cline Singers released Initiate earlier this year, and I will forever remember listening to it as I shoveled my car out of all that snow in February.) But before he is considered too prolific for his own good, some explanation is in order. Dirty Baby was created on spec, in a sense. It's a collaboration between Cline and poet/producer David Breskin that creates music to go with paintings by Ed Ruscha, which also appear on a large size book of the same name, published by DelMonico Books - Prestel. The late artist came into prominence in the '80s for his "censor strip" paintings, which feature blacked-out censor lines become part of the artistic statement.

The album has one of the most deluxe packages to ever grace a small disc set. It comes in a CD-size box that includes two booklets with a total of 66 Ruscha images, one set for each CD. A third booklet is attached to the disc container itself, with liner notes from Cline and session photos of each of the 16 musicians. This kind of detail and care usually comes only with releases from Rhino Handmade or Mosaic.

The discs - known as Side A and Side B - are grouped thematically. The first consists of a six part, 42-minute suite which Breskin has referred to as "a time-lapse history of Western Civilization," according to Cline's notes. The accompanying images come from Ruscha's Silhouette series, a set of dark, black-and-white-becoming gray images that run the gamut from out-of-focus barn gates to a swing set with the censor strips in the dead center of the image. The music successfully charts the evolution of the synopsis. It begins with a looped acoustic guitar that is joined by harmonica and bass playing a melody that evokes the American heartland. It evolves, adding some great organ flourishes (from Wayne Peet) before some string scrapes show up and things take a turn for the ugly.

After some excellent rural blues from the leader, things get a little convoluted. Cline fires up his loopy Quintronics Drum Buddy (a primitive device that works like a modern drum machine) for some wah wah guitar and '80s style one-note (think Wall-era David Gilmour) which should be a great time, but instruments like the bass come and go without really kicking into something.

The final 12-minute section deftly scores the apocalyptic feelings that are scorching the country, like a post-modern version of Carl Stalling's "Powerhouse." Over his brother Alex's unrelentless "When the Levee Breaks" beat, Cline proves why he is such a guitar hero, as he does his own scorching. The only problem - and it's a big one - is the annoying slowed-down voice that groans every four beats. I understand the context, but it takes away from something really powerful. But it drops out for the last quarter of the piece, leaving a ukulele and banjo noodling away, which comes as something of a reward for sitting through the proceedings.

After the breadth of Side A, Side B caters to the ADD listeners: 33 songs in 51 minutes, one piece for each image in the accompanying booklet of Ruska's Cityscapes. (The title is a misnomer, as each image is more less a series of colors, or one color, with censor strips across it.) If the brevity evokes memories of John Zorn's Naked City, the titles also recall the more violent imagery that band appropriated from various sources. All the titles read like lines from a mob film, like "Do As I Say Or..." to "I Will Wipe You Off the Face of This Earth."

Sometimes all that's missing from the arrangement is the one high, bleating alto shriek that Zorn threw in all of his noisy solos. But as a whole, Cline displays a great deal of breadth with these pieces, never once repeating an idea or reshaping it. He touches on jazz, blues, modern classical, death metal and his own version of Carl Stalling (or maybe that's the Morton Feldman reference he mentions). He even based a few on the rhythmic emphasis of their titles, like "Don't Threaten Me With Your Threats."

Lasting anywhere from 28 seconds to a rare 3:34, nearly all the pieces stand as individual works, rather than movements of a bigger piece. Special mention must be made of "Agree to Our Terms Or Prepare Yourself For a Blast Furnace." In 55 seconds, a xylophone clunk and alarm bell segue into a sonic interpretation of said furnace, all performed completely live.

Dirty Baby features an all-star cast including but not limited to reed master Vinny Golia, Cline Singers Scott Amendola (drums) and Devin Hoff (bass), and Jon Brion (keyboards). This album is also a mandatory purchase. Looking at it from the Big Picture, Cryptogramophone head Jeff Gauthier (who plays violin on Side B) should be given positive reinforcement for releasing such a beautiful artifact at a time when so many knuckleheads say the music industry is belly up. He cares, so you should too.

Buy this set, and put it in a prominent place in your house, where you'll see it everyday. That will motivate you to take it down, put the music on, read Cline's thoughts (which sometimes get a little too self-deprecating, but modesty is a good thing), perhaps look at the images while listening to their corresponding tunes and really get into this music on a deeper level.

Monday, November 29, 2010

ATS anniversary show

This past Saturday was ATS' 25th anniversary show, and the Love Letters got to open the evening, although the mainstream media in town neglected to mention that in their articles. Nevertheless, I felt lucky that we got on the bill to play with them, because it was a big deal show that would bring a lot of post-holiday people out of the woodwork and also because the band was starting right as I was graduating high school way back then, so that was something of a significant period of my life (not exactly the happiest time, but oh well). As a side note, my high school reunion took place on the same night, but naturally I blew it off.

To be honest, I might not have made the reunion if the show wasn't happening because I got sick with some sort of stomach virus that day. I left work early and ending up getting really sick later in the day. But I was determined to play the show. It must go on, etc. Erin, our drummer, went through the same thing the night before, which made me think that something must be going around and that it wasn't just food poisoning.

We rallied what strength we had and got everything rolling in a timely manner. The sound man there was really good. He gave me a lot of vocal monitor which is good because I feel like if I can't hear myself I'll end up veering way off key. Buck used two amps to make sure his guitar projected, and he really got a Bob Mould wall of sound going. Sometimes it was a tad too much. Then I got used to it.

The setlist was written in a way that we managed to segue maybe about half the songs together, and even when we weren't jumping from song to song immediately the breaks were kept pretty brief. I think that kept the momentum going on our end and kept us focused. This followed a practice earlier in the week where we played for a lot longer than usual, running through half the set and then playing the entire set all the way through. By about midway into the proper set, I felt like we were really warmed up and clicking. So that carried over.

To pay tribute to ATS, we covered their "Scarecrow," a great song from their early days that they never play anymore. When Buck thought it was a good idea, I knew we should do it. (His brother Evan wrote the tune, so Buck should know.)

One of our songs, which still has the working/joke title "One Riff Shanley," was written about a year ago as a serious open letter to my friend Pam, who passed away a few months ago. We haven't played it out since she died and I wanted to give it an appropriate intro that tied together the idea of appreciating friends you still have around (the way I try to cope with loss) and the scope of the evening and playing a song like you might not ever get to play it again. I thought I had flubbed the intro and rambled in circles, despite having written down what I want to say. Then last night a friend forwarded me a note that another friend had written about the show, saying how much she liked our set and quoting specifically what I said about the song! Guess I wasn't too far off base.

Between sets, a guy approached me and said our set reminded him of something that he might have heard at the Electric Banana around 1988. He's pretty much on the money, since I'm still writing songs in a similar style to what I wrote back then. In fact the whole evening took us back to '88, really.

Steve Heineman, ATS' original drummer and one of my musical gurus from 25 years ago, wasn't able to make the show because his son got sick at the last minute. Hopefully that'll all work out with his kid. I was looking forward to seeing him again.

By the time ATS went on, I was feeling physically okay, but starting to get tired. I couldn't leave right away because I wanted to check them out so I saw 30-45 of their set. A friend of mine put it best when he said they could play the pants off of any band half their age. Who'd'a thunk it had been about five years since they played together? I didn't see a set list but they were going from one song right into the next.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

CD Review: Ches Smith & These Arches - Finally Out of My Hands

Ches Smith & These Arches
Finally Out of My Hands

Ches Smith's percussive know-how has landed him a variety of bands, including Mary Halvorson's trio/quintet, Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog, Iggy Pop, and a doom metal/jazz bass-drums duet with bassist Devin Hoff (Nels Cline Singers). So it makes sense that the quartet that he has assembled for his debut as a leader falls somewhere between edgy jazz and brainy instrumental rock. Halvorson (guitar) joins her trio mate, along with Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone) and Andrea Parkins (accordion, organ, electronics), making it a bold combination of players.

"Anxiety Disorder" is a perfect song to kick off an album, for both its energy and its composition. Beginning almost like a Middle Eastern melody, with a droning pedal point and some great dissonant intervals from Halvorson in the intro, its second part of the theme shifts into a descending chord sequence that makes the entire thing sound more like an instrumental rock tune. Before you get too lost in it, Parkins turns into a car engine that won't turn over, wheezing and growling. Smith and Malaby break free along with her, and the whole band lands on a trail that recalls "Interstellar Overdrive," sans pointless doodles. This goes on for just a few choice minutes, and then Smith clicks everyone back into shape to take the theme out, though Malaby blows wild rather than sticking to the chart. If this type of music believed in hit singles, "Anxiety Disorder" would lead the pack.

The rest of the album follows a similar approach of structured heads leading to free improvisation. The compositions themselves vary widely, including but not limited to a slow piece full of tenor lines that have a strangled tone that comes off like a flute ("One Long Minute") to a plethora of stop-start racket and accordion noise ("Disgust for a Pathetic Chorale"). Usually the quartet wraps up the same way they began, but Smith varies exactly how each piece plays out. Halvorson and Malaby close the title track by themselves with an abridged version of the taut, legato theme, after a duel of reed shrieks and guitar skronk. "Sixteen Bars for Jail" just stops.

Smith comes across like a blend of John Bonham and Jim Black, playing thunderous beats like the Led Zeppelin anchor and on a kit that has the crisp attack and fleet direction of the Downtown New York jazz vet. He dubbed this band These Arches as a reflection of the way arches in structural bridges meet and support weight at their horizontal tensions. The arches in this case refer to the compositions, which balance structure and improvisation.

Finally Out of My Hands has a very concise feel to it. At 36 minutes, only one of the eight tracks lasts over six minutes, with most coming in around four. It would have been nice to hear the group stretch out a little more - with a pedigree like this, the results would always be worthy. Still, what's here contains a lot of zing, which is why it's going on my list of best for 2010.

(Side note to Skirl Records - I love your packaging, with 5 1/2" X 7 1/2" signature style covers and wild artwork, but please go with a bigger point size for the credits. I know that makes me sound old but this 40-something's eyes were crossing when I looked inside.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pharoah Sanders - the full review

JazzTimes actually had this review up on their site within a few hours after receiving it. Click here to read it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dreams and reality. And music too.

Woke up this morning with a jolt, worried that I had overslept and that the alarm didn't go off at 5 a.m. like I set it. So I checked the clock - 3:35.
This whole waking up early and getting to be before midnight ("early" in my book) is playing tricks on my head. Somewhere in there, I had a bizarre dream about sleeping in some hotel where there was a roomful of people sprawled out all over the place, and some inconsiderate guy playing CDs all night. Cecil Taylor was in the room too because I think he was playing Pittsburgh.

BAck to reality:
Pharoah Sanders came to town on Saturday and blew our minds. I wrote a review of the show which is going to appear on the JazzTimes website. A link will be forthcoming.

I dang near killed myself getting to that show. That afternoon, the throttle of my car was awry as I was going up Negley hill and the car wouldn't stop until I threw on all the brakes and shut it off. Luckily a kind fella - who of course knows several friends of mine since this is Pittsburgh - gave me a ride to pick up Jennie and Donovan. But I had to renew my AAA, get back over to the car to wait for a tow truck, get home, change out of work clothes and then get Downtown to the show. I nearly walked the whole way from Polish Hill. But luckily the show started maybe 10 minutes after 8. My only regret is that I didn't have coffee in mind and I was coming down all through the show.

Afterwards I finally got some joe at Crazy Mocha and headed back to Polish Hill to see the Harlan Twins at Gooski's. The events of the day, the late coffee and the booze helped make the show feel even more dramatic than it really might have been. They had a new bass player, which explains why Jules (who gave me a ride from Downtown to Bloomfield where I got said coffee) wasn't going to the bar right away. Or at all.

Earlier last week, the Love Letters returned to Arsenal Lanes for Rock 'n Bowl. It was our first show since Erin got back from her tour with Jeremiah Clark. It was spirited but a little under rehearsed. Our big show is the Saturday on Thanksgiving weekend. We're playing with ATS at their 25th anniversary show. That show should be great.

Next assignment on the docket: a preview of Nellie McKay's show at the Warhol. Just talked to her yesterday. What a hoot!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

CD Review: Marc Ribot - Silent Movies

Marc Ribot
Silent Movies

Instrumental music has always evoked visual images to me. It probably has a lot to do with Sesame Street and the way they would combine outdoor films with catchy music that really fit the scene. There was one clip in particular that showed a time lapse image of tree during the seasons, with some fairly free jazz behind it - long trumpet tones and spazzy drumming. For that reason, Herbie Mann's "Comin' Home Baby" - one of the first songs I remember hearing, was loaded with mental imagery - out-of-focus lights during the vibes solo, my dad's voice during the bass solo (he played bass too, so that probably had something to do with it).

Marc Ribot might have been thinking somewhere along that same wavelength when putting together the music for his new solo album. After performing the soundtrack for Charlie Chaplin's silent film The Kid, Ribot assembled this set, which includes music he wrote for a documentary called El General about Plutarco Elias Calles of Mexico, and an unreleased film called Drunken Boat. Some other tracks came from "projects that never existed outside my head," which means he was probably seeing footage in his mind and using that to guide him as he played.

This is not a set by Ribot the skronk man (although there is some nice feedback in "Natalia in E-flat Major," which sounds exactly like the beginning of the garage deep cut "Hot Smoke and Sassafras," for those who are keeping track of such minutiae). This album spotlights Ribot the more pensive and lyrical player. In his notes he talks about the underlying tragedy in the plot of The Kid, wherein Chaplin's tramp tries to create a real family with an abandoned kid. The piece of the same name builds on the sweetness of that story, finding a glimmer in a situation that would otherwise break your heart. The warmth of his playing comes out all over the album, and even when the brittle Ribot tone of his Tom Waits tenure appears on "Empty," it doesn't have as much shrapnel surrounding it.

Silent Movies only comes up short when several of the songs lack something without the visual imagery to accompany them. Many of them feel kind of spare, with chords and some single note melodies on top of them, and neither of them move forward, dynamically or harmonically. They just get a little repetitive. Unless of course, Ribot expects listeners to add their own mental reel of images.

Adding to the solo Ribot guitar, Keefus Ciancia is credited on five tracks with "soundscapes." This credit includes what sounds like faint cymbal rolls that are just loud enough to make you listen closer to make sure they weren't imagined. Other times, he contributes what could either be the ghost of Rowland S. Howard or late night Manhattan street construction. It makes interesting additions to the music and picks it up when the similarities begin to appear between tracks.

"Sous Le Ciel De Paris," once a hit for Edith Piaf, gives the album it's token cover and also closes it out. But before the disc stops spinning, Ciancia adds 1:45 of low atmospheric sound (This is too calm to be called "noise.") It almost sounds like it's meant to evoke the image of Ribot picking up his guitar case and walking off into the night, while the credits roll on the screen.

Monday, November 08, 2010

New music

This Saturday, Pharoah Sanders is playing in Pittsburgh at the August Wilson Center. Before you drop everything and try to find tickets, I've heard that the show is sold out. Maybe it's been moved to a bigger venue, but I can't say for sure.

Two weeks ago, I talked to Sanders on the phone for about half an hour. At first he seemed reticent to open up. It was very much the case of "I just play," but when I asked him about John Coltrane - a subject that I thought he'd be sick of discussing - that's when he opened up. It made me wonder if he's just a really modest guy who prefers not to talk about himself. My story will run in this week's City Paper.

This coming Friday, I'm tentatively interviewing Nellie McKay, who's coming to the Warhol at the beginning of December. I have her Doris Day tribute, Normal as Blueberry Pie, but I'm in the process of downloading her newest work. Don't worry, authorities, I'm doing it legally via a link from her publicist.

And today, I finally finished a review of the four live Jefferson Airplane CDs that Collector's Choice put out. They're all good but I need a break from "It's No Secret" and "The Other Side of This Life."

Just noticed a five-star review of Michael Formanek's The Rub and Spare Change so I decided I needed to pick it up today. He is a bassist who played with Tim Berne's Bloodcount, to name a few groups. Berne is on this album too and so far he doesn't sound like the Berne I know, which is a mark in his favor. As soon as I finish downloading, Nellie, I'm going to try to get all the through The Rub, something that can be rare in this house.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

More Van Dyke Parks. In Blurt

Blurt ran my Van Dyke Parks piece on their website this week. Here it is.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Thin White Line man has left us

I just found out today that Pittsburgh lost another great performer. Bobby Porter was the singer of numerous bands, most notably Thin White Line, of which there were several different lineups. He was truly an unique fixture in Pittsburgh, a black guy hanging out at punk clubs with people who were several years - decades, even - younger than him. And singing in a voice that you'd think was closer to Otis Redding than anything else, but he was fronting a hard rock band. His voice was a force of nature.

The first time I ever saw Bobby perform was in the studio of CMU's radio station WRCT-FM. Like many of his performances, he started doing cartwheels and jumps around the room during the guitar solos. He also whipped out a pair of nunchucks (sp?) and even after he thwacked himself in the head and started bleeding, he continued to pour his heart and soul into the music as if it hadn't happened. I was 18 at the time and had never seen that type of intense focus on the music.

Bobby could be a loose cannon. I regret to this day the fact that I published a flip comment by a local musician that apparently got him clocked in the puss by Bobby. I was very young and naive and wasn't wise to the idea of things being off the record, thinking that everyone in this town got along, and it pains me to think about that. The point is, Bobby didn't take any guff and could be intense. But he was always nice to me whenever we saw each other. He had experience in the Viet Nam war so I'm sure there were demons he was battling. But he's in a better place now.

Thanks for all the great performances, Bobby, including all those a capella renditions of "Dock of the Bay" at last call. They were something.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Seeing Richard Barone & Chicago Luzern Exchange

Last week, I had two previews in Pittsburgh City Paper - a short one on Richard Barone and a feature on the Chicago Luzern Exchange. I also went to both shows, which took place last Friday and this past Monday, respectively.

Richard Barone was in what could be considered the tough position of opening for the Fleshtones and our fair city's Cynics, both of whom had drawn a pretty serious crowd to the 31st Street Pub. Armed with only his acoustic guitar and his incredible voice, he took the stage and started banging out songs from his new album, Glow. There was a good deal of chatter going on in the club (this was the kind of show where a lot of people came out of the woodwork after several months to a year of skipping shows), but an attentive crowd starting forming in front of the stage. That's where I was.

My friends Jackie and Rob showed up pretty early into his set, and they lived in the New York/New Jersey area when Richard's band the Bongos were coming up, in the early 1980s. Barone was introducing a Lou Reed cover, innocently asking, "Do you guys like Lou Reed? I want to play a Lou Reed cover." Since he seemed personable enough, I responded that it was cool, as long as he did a Bongos song too. He seemed a little gung-ho at the request, which almost cancelled out the Lou song.

I had thought earlier about which Bongos song to request, knowing that it was only him and six strings playing, so not every song could come off. "Hunting" seemed like a good one, but it turns out he plays that with a special tuning. so that was out. Jackie called for "Barbarella," which he launched into and which also seemed to kick up the energy level of the rest of his set. Along with more Glow songs, he also covered the Beatles' "It's Only Love" (excellent) and added the Bongos' fabulous "In the Congo."

The Cynics came on next and of course they tore the place up, playing some chestnuts along with songs from the upcoming album. They have a new rhythm section, both of whom sang back-up, which lead to moments when all four guys were singing. Barone joined them on a song or two, singing back-up and banging a light-up tambourine.

After them, the Fleshtones could have seemed anti-climactic, but those guys know how to put on a kick-ass show. High-kicks during songs, Mick-Jagger-on-the-TAMI-Show dance moves - they have it down. I didn't stay for their whole set, but got a good dose before I left.


When the Chicago Luzern Exchange launched into their set on Monday, it was clear that cornetist Josh Berman was exactly right in our interview: These guys have played together a lot, so even though the set was totally improvised, it felt really cohesive. They were listening closely to each other.

There were moments early on where it took a second to figure out if Berman or tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson was responsible for specific wild sounds that were emanating from the stage. Marc Unternahrer sounded impressive because he got some low growls coming out of his tuba which gave the music a great atmosphere and didn't sound flatulent (a personal issue I have with low-end brass or reeds). Frank Rosaly didn't look at his kit throughout most of the set. It almost seemed like he was looking at Unternahrer most of the time. Maybe he was, but he also had an expression on his face that proved he was listening to all the guys. He was especially fun to watch and he moved all of his kit gracefully, added and subtracted cymbals from his kit and even scraped a tiny cymbal with a fork (which wasn't exactly like nails on a chalkboard, but close; he and I talked later).

If someone wandered into this show and didn't know about the billing, they might've wondered why an imposing looking guy slowly walked onstage after about 30 minutes (I think; I lost sense of time), took off his jacket and sat down at a table onstage where there was a microphone. But the few of us there knew it was Eugene S. Robinson, singer of Oxbow, who was on a spoken word tour and was joining forces with the CLE for the night.

Robinson is a riveting performer, really bringing the characters in his story to life. In the case of what he read, though, that can be a little scary, as the story got pretty violent and gruesome before it was done. As a sidebar, it's worth noting that Robinson has garnered a rep for getting in fights with audience members who push his buttons, to the extent that people have often messed with him just to be idiots, and he puts them in their place. Nobody looked for trouble in Pittsburgh and in fact once the set was done, Robinson came off as a genuinely nice guy.

The Thunderbird crowd was pretty sparse that night, but everyone there was into what they heard. And we all bought music from the band. I was tempted to get Berman's Old Idea on vinyl, even though I have it on CD. But I opted for a couple CLE discs and Jackson's new quartet album on Clean Feed.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Back to Mono, not really by choice

Playing right now: The Joe Harriott Double Quintet - Indo-Jazz Suite
(I won this in an auction from Jerry's Records, because I heard Ken Vandermark's Harriott tribute album and wanted to hear originals. This is a little different, as the second quintet is a group playing sitar, tabla, etc. Harriott didn't write anything. It's weird, though because Kenny Wheeler's trumpet is clearly off mike.)

Our stereo - if you can call it that, in this day and age - on the first floor is slowly dying. Right now it's only playing one channel. It's not because one of the speakers is out either. (We have a set of speakers connected in the kitchen so we can hear it in both rooms, and if the left channel in the A speakers goes out, its counterpart in B will too.) Something has happened to that channel because we've had this problem before.

The only albums I can get real pleasure out of are mono ones. And it just so happens I found a mono copy of Fresh Cream at Mind Cure (the new used record store in Polish Hill) a few weeks ago. I had to buy it because the stereo pans of that album are so awful (dead channel for almost 15 seconds on "Cat's Squirrel"). And it was only $3. Plus, the original US album took off "Spoonful" and added "I Feel Free." I like both (why didn't they leave "Toad" off?!) but I have the stereo version, which restored "Spoonful" when it was reissued on RSO.

The other record I won from Jerry's was Monk in Italy. It's in stereo and the one channel makes you feel like you're sitting between John Ore's bass and Frankie Dunlop's drums: You can hear Monk and Charlie Rouse but not clearly. I have to get that thing fixed. I'm upstairs now at my 1982 Technics receiver with the direct drive turntable that loves to speed up and slow down, though it hasn't done that yet.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

CD Review: Vijay Iyer - Solo

Vijay Iyer

The Vijay Iyer Trio's 2009 album Historicity will very likely be regarded in future years as one of those albums that cut a new path for piano trios. If not, it should. Perhaps the same could be said about other releases in Iyer's catalog, but everything really seemed to line up on that album: the original pieces; reworkings of songs by Stevie Wonder, MIA and Leonard Bernstein (they played first version of "Somewhere" that didn't sound maudlin to these ears since Tom Waits did it); and most importantly the way Iyer's piano worked so well with Stephan Crump's bass and Marcus Gilmore's drums. Crump especially seemed to astound, using his instrument as a foundation that could also hold water in the realm of countermelodies.

Now the German ACT label has released Iyer's first effort where he goes it alone. A cynic - and I know at least one of them - could regard this album as a way for the hot pianist to win over a more mainstream audience. Solo albums can be easier on the ears and besides, he's frontloaded the album with more covers, starting with Michael Jackson and jumping right into Thelonious Monk, stopping on a standard before dipping into the Duke Ellington book. Four Iyer originals appear midway through the album, with one more closing it after a few more covers.

Well, I'm cynical and after listening to this album numerous times, it's clear that this is no gimmick.

If you play opener "Human Nature" for most people, there is a good chance that they won't associate it with the original, at least not for at first. Iyer begins with some moody sustain that opens up the lyrical qualities of the Thriller ballad. He also casts it in a jerky time signature that sounds like 7/8, but might have a few more alternating beats. This adds to its mysterious quality instead of weirding it up.
That time signature is also part of his take on Monk's theme "Epistrophy." Last year Ravi Coltrane did the same thing with the song. It could be that the half-step riff is a great workout at both rapid tempos and clipped rhythms. Regardless, the flurry of notes never lets up during this track and Iyer maintains a clear line of thought as his hands come close to knotting up as they play (a la Bugs Bunny. Sorry, couldn't shake the image.)

Along with "Darn that Dream" and "Black and Tan Fantasy," Solo includes a piece by Iyer's former leader Steve Coleman. "Games" has a bright melody that brings out the pianist's melodic gifts, which also reveals one of the catalysts (Coleman, that is) who might have shaped Iyer along the way. It's one of the most impressive tracks on the album too.

Of the originals, the four in a row almost act like a suite. They also incorporate disparate piano elements, from Cecil Taylor-like splatters to pensive interludes and some serious riffage. The latter is something that solo performances are susceptible to - noodling on an idea for too long without developing it. "Patterns" builds out of its namesake from an arpeggio to a structure with standard changes, and while the rapid right hand work is fun, it doesn't satisfy as much as the other tracks.

Speaking of which, I've gone through most of them individually, which might be a little excessive but I think it proves how many ideas and approaches Iyer has at a finger's length. Solo really offers an inside view of his brain, and what you see looks pretty good.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


At my dayjob, I feel pretty fortunate that my schedule doesn't require me to work closing shifts, which would have me walking out the door at close to 11 p.m. When I started there, that was often the case in the first two or three years. So when my old department asked if I could step in and close tonight, I figured, why not.

Last week, after committing, I looked in my appointment book and saw that I had written down that the New Pornographers are playing here tonight. FIE!

If I was a weasel, I could make something up, retract my commitment and go to the show. But I don't feel too weaselly these days. I guess that means I'm getting more mature, or something.

It's not as if I've missed the NPs the last few times they were here. And of course, I'm going to remind the guys at work about this until the day I die.

Monday, October 18, 2010

CD Review: Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman - Dual Identity

Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman
Dual Identity
(Clean Feed)

Now that Rudresh Mahanthappa's CD with fellow alto saxophonist Bunky Green has hit the streets, it's starting to generate some buzz, (JazzTimes flagged it on the cover of the latest issue, using the word "collab," no less. Zheesh.) That meeting of two generations of altos deserves some kudos, but a few months ago this release of two almost-peers hit the street and deserves equal amounts of attention.

Pairing up Mahanthappa and Lehman (leader of the octet released the amazing Travail, Transformation and Flow last year, and one-third of Fieldwork) can feel like the equivalent taking two very knowledgeable music enthusiasts, pumping them full of strong coffee and getting them to verbally expound on musicians that are meaningful to them. In other words, both of them have such astounding technique that their ideas come forth in fast, knotty ways in an endless flow that both complement the other one and make it sound a little busy. Sometimes "Duel" Identity might seem more appropriate since it feels like friendly sparring at times.

The horns aren't severely panned to separate channels, nor does the cover give a clue as to which alto player is which. And frankly, that who's-who intrigue keeps the album a little more interesting.

Some tracks use their leaders' astounding technique cleverly, such as "Foster Brothers," whose main riff has the illusion that it's about to shift into double-time, only to be snapped back into half-time, thanks to a tricky time signature. The time and changes of "Post-Modern Pharaohs," on the other hand, sounds a little rigid, like the band can't really relax. Casual listening is out, studious listening is required.

Somewhere I'm sure a reviewer is comparing this alto summit to the work of Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who explored similar territory with M-Base back in the '80s. (Mahanthappa has talked in print about Coleman's influence on his work.) Knowing that music only in passing, it's hard for me to draw a direct parallel, but the style of the rhythm section points that way too. Liberty Ellman (guitar), Matt Brewer (bass), and Damon Reid (drums) hold this music down tightly, allowing pretty of room for the altos to run wild - as well as Ellman who is a natural for this music. Sometimes it feels like they're really itching to break into a funk riff if only the tune would let them. On the other hand, the band reveals shows their grace and skill with a ballad ("Katchu," Ellman's one composition) and a short tone poem ("Resonance Ballad"). These different nuances make this album one that keeps begging for repeated listens that will yield new discoveries.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Shanley on Sherman

My article on Allan Sherman is currently running on the first page of the Blurt website. You can find it here: There's a shorter version of it in the latest print issue, which should also be on the newsstands by now. (Newsstands, what an antiquated term.) I strongly encourage you to purchase that too, so the print media will stay alive. But start by reading about him.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Me and Van Dyke down by the Frick House

Van Dyke Parks played at the Andy Warhol Museum tonight. I never knew much of his own music until about two weeks ago, when I was taken up on a pitch I sent to Harp for a story on his current tour. It's actually his first tour too because he's never been on the road.

Mr. Parks is a ham, pure and simple. He's a sweetheart too. He gave me one of the best interviews I've ever done. I took him to the Frick Art & Historical Center today - along with Clare & the Reasons who are touring with him and backing him up. During Van Dyke's college years, he attempted to get in to a party at the Frick mansion that Helen Clay Frick was having for Arthur Rubenstein, in which our beloved pianist made it past the door but not into the parlour before Ms. Frick had him booted.

Here is a picture of me and him after our tour, which coincidentally was given by the mother of Andy Mulkerin, who wrote about him in City Paper last week. That's Pittsburgh for you.

Ironically, this almost didn't happen. When I heard Van Dyke was coming I was having a moment of doubt about my ability or desire in writing articles about music, so I nearly blew off pitching Blurt for about a week. IOf course I changed my mind and I'm glad I did because this turned out to be one of the most amusing days I've had in the last few months.

The Blurt article isn't up yet, so I won't give away more of his golden quotes. Keep watching.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rest in peace, Pam

My dear friend Pam passed away on Monday, after a long battle with cancer. Even though I prepared myself for this, it's still hard to take. I believe that she is the first friend of mine who has died. Sure I've lost relatives close to me, but never one of my running buddies. And she was up there on the Running Buddy list.

Pam loved music as much as me, having sung in a band and even run away to join the Doobie Brothers as a back-up singer. (Hold your salty Doobie comments out of respect for the dead, por favor; I am.) Unfortunately she was still a teenager and her mom made her come home. Later on in life she whooped it up with Rick James and Three Dog Night, the latter band being one of my favorites from back in the day, making us kindred spirits.

When she was getting ready for chemo last year, I wrote a set of lyrics that were like an open letter to her, and the Love Letters still perform it. The point of the song was not to give up hope, even in the darkest days. It actually worked for a while: when she went in to have a cancerous growth removed, it was gone. Alas she wasn't out of the woods, but for a minute I believed in miracles. Or positive vibrations. Of the latter, I'm still fairly convinced. We'll see if I can still sing it.

Pam could be rather dark and bleak, but she was also wickedly funny. And easy to crack up. I never heard her sing, but she says she used to do a killer take on Smith's version of "Baby It's You." I just hope the next time that comes on at work, I don't lose it and have to go running.

Pam, wherever you are, I love you. Keep an eye on me. And with God as my witness, I swore turkeys could fly. (In-joke. Google it for reference.)

Friday, September 10, 2010

CD Review: Steve Coleman & Five Elements

Steve Coleman & Five Elements
Harvesting Semblances and Affinities

Steve Coleman's liner notes for this album begin by explaining, "The main theme of this CD is the musical realization of temporal impressions. The recording of these compositions happened during the traditional time of the harvest [October 6, 2006], as the Sun was in the waning degrees of Libra. The previous full moon that occurred was the Harvest Moon, another sign that the harvest season was in full force...[M]y intent was a type of energy harvesting, i.e. the gathering, through musical symbolism, of the energy of particular moments." He goes on to say that the material is a musical interpretation of 13th-century philosopher Ramon Llull, who worked with numbers representing universal truths.

As time goes on, I personally feel that the idea of our lives being affected by vibrations could be true. It works on guitar strings when they aren't exactly in tune. The moon affects the tides. Get a bunch of people to think positively and who knows what'll happen. So maybe Coleman's thoughts about the timing of these recordings actually holds some ground. But still, most people will come back to the big question - does it swing?

The answer is yes. But it's still a pretty challenging listen. Of course, you ought to expect that from an album with a pithy title like Harvesting Semblances and Affinities.

The first remarkable thing that stands out on the album comes with Jen Shyu's performance. She is a vocalist who uses her voice like an additional instrument. Once in a while it sounds like she's using lyrics (She begins the album with a phrase that sounds like, "I sawwww a guy."), but unless she's garbling everything or singing in some strange foreign tongue, the bulk of her performance isn't words coming out of her mouth. Most importantly, Shyu pulls off the nearly impossible tasks of neither getting in the way of the other instruments or getting really annoying and ruining the music with bad theatrics.

Alto saxophonist Coleman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and trombonist Tim Albright play some patterns together that feel pretty rigid. Tyshawn Sorey (drums) and Thomas Morgan (bass) are right there with them, either spurring on those oddly shaped phrases, and in turn giving them more clarity, or else they act as a counterpoint to them. It sounds funky, but not in the traditional sense. Don't expect 4/4 grooves.

Towards the end of the album, things get a bit too busy. Whereas "Attila 02 (Dawning Ritual)" opens the album by displaying the potential of what will come as the album continues, its ending counterpoint "Attila 04 (Closing Ritual)" sounds tense and staccato and hard to appreciate beyond it's technical skill, most of that coming from Storey's accents. "Vernal Equinox 040320-0149 (Initiation)" sounds like everyone is blowing for themselves, which contrasts with the earlier, 14-minute epic "060706-2319 (Middle of Water)" where it seems like everyone is playing a written part, no one is actually soloing and the end result in an unrelentless, but intriguing piece. Yet up until those final tracks, Coleman really produces a impressive and cerebral set that has as much emotion at its core as it has chops and numerical basis. If he can include a piece by a Danish composer based on a Latin text and make it fit within his own compositions - save for Shyu's more operatic performance - the saxophonist needs to be explored further and further.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Woodstock 41 - reflections a week later

I realize that my blogging output is way lower than other folks. Many people ramble on about all the events of their day, before, during and after they happen. Anyone reading this entry has probably seen enough of my posts to know that I don't roll that way. Nevertheless, it came to my attention that not only do I need to write an entry about the Love Letters show from this past Saturday, but I also never wrote anything about the Woodstock 41 show that happened at Howler's on Sunday, August 15. I participated in that show too, playing in Refried Boogie, a Canned Heat tribute band. There's a lot tell about that show, so I'm going to run out of time before I can get to the Love Letters.

The Woodstock show was put together by Brian Colleran (man of many local bands, including but not limited to Weird Paul and Thee Starry Eyes) and Read Connelly (also of Thee Starry Eyes, Beagle Brothers). Reed started the show around 6 pm with a Ritchie Havens set that was as much shtick as it was music - in a good way. When he played "Freedom," he walked offstage up to Brian and asked "Are any of the other bands here yet," just as Havens did 41 years ago. Mr. Connelly is a ham.

Next up was a duo credited as Elliott Sussman and Middle Children, although I saw Mr. Sussman perform one night later and he didn't quite look like the gent who was in this duo. Anyhow, they recast Jefferson Airplane with pre-programmed computer beats, which was a clever twist from the usual homages that the rest of us were doing. For yuks, they threw in Starship's "We Built This City," in which "rock and roll" was switched out for "cock and balls."

Alicia Fronczek from the Garment District also rearranged Janis Joplin in a slower, almost goth way by skipping drums, but having guitar, bass and keyboards/lap steel back her up. On guitar was my once-and-forever bandmate Mike Prosser, who knows all the Big Brother licks anyway. Sara K from the Garment District was in the tricky position of playing bass and holding the tempo together and she was like a rock. Solid, that is. Eric, the fourth guy, sometimes got a little drowned out, which was unfortunate especially when he whipped out the saw. And Alicia was great as Janis. This dame can sing!

El Grosso cranked up the amps and did a great job with Creedence Clearwater Revival. Those songs are so straight ahead that it's easy to play them without getting the subtleties down, but these guys clearly knew what they were doing and whipped up the energy level in the room.

Next up was Refried Boogie. Now, at the real Woodstock, Crosby, Stills and Nash started their set by saying, "This is only our second gig and we're scared shitless." With us, it was only our second time playing together as a full band, and the first at full volume. Prosser and I had been talking about playing Canned Heat for several months prior to the show. For awhile it looked like I might be the second guitar player, since I was filling the role of Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson in the singing department. Luckily that never happened because even with an open tuning, I'm not to be trusted with six strings. We got James Hart from the Harlan Twins, who belongs in this kind of band anyway. When a guy who looked the part of drummer Fito de la Parra couldn't make the gig, we recruited Harlans drummer Neal Kling. Jason "Underwater Culprit" Baldinger rounded out the band, filling the role of Bob "The Bear" Hite. Our only five-piece practice occurred in Mike's apartment with acoustic guitar, practice pad and low volume bass.

"Refried Boogie" is the name of a 40-minute live track on a Canned Heat album where each member of the band gets a long, indulgent solo, but we avoided that in favor of the band's more popular, accessible (i.e. good) material - "Rollin' and Tumblin'," "Going Up the Country," "Let's Work Together," and "On the Road Again," the latter where we pulled a guy up from the audience to drone on the tamboura. Jules from the Harlans was supposed to play it - and it was his axe - but he disappeared during our set. Hence the special guest.

Mrs. Paintbrush - aka Jackson from Grand Buffet - did a tribute to folksinger Melanie next. What I like about this guy is he's a badass mc, all fiesty and rowdy onstage, ready to drop f-bombs, but he knows Melanie's music and his professed love of it didn't sound ironic at all. And you have to love a guy who likes Melanie in part because she reminds him of his mom.

Cactus Wheelhouse, something of local supergroup, did Mountain next. Dave Wheeler (guitar) and Jake Leger (drums, also of Karl Hendricks) have played together before but the aforementioned Jules Krishnamurti (Harlan Twins) filled in for their regular bass player. Ear drums were damned when these cats started. Dave can chew up the scenery as both a guitarist and a singer, and he made a great Leslie West, albeit a lot lighter in weight. The two electric fans were blowing his and Jules' hair which only added to the visual effect.

They were so loud that I had to listen to the Weird Paul Rock Band do Joe Cocker from outside. Surprisingly Paul handed the role of Joe over to his keyboard player Ben, who put on a great show.

By the time Prosser, Baldinger, Connelly, Colleran and whoever else was up doing Country Joe and the Fish, I felt kind of spent. A lot of music had gone down that night. It was great to see Prosser clearly in ecstasy onstage, churning out leads and making rocking-out moves. Baldinger also seemed to reach transcendence as he got into the sermonizing aspect of the set. He was really into it.

BUT THEIR SET WOULDN'T END. It was hard to tell if things were falling apart or if the songs had a lot of breakdowns in them. They did "Rock and Soul Music" which Prosser said was a pretty long piece. But he and JB kept talking over each other and it got a little frustrating, so I had to get some water and clear my head.

Honorable mention goes to DJ Stripey who spun during the sets and actually avoided his uber-obscure usual habits and plays some pretty popular (and good) '60s stuff.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Who's Killing the Music Industry?

An article appeared in the New York Times several weeks ago which profiled a woman who works for BMI. It chronicled her struggles, as it were, in getting clubs to be compliant with the performance rights groups so that musicians will get paid each time their song is played. The article was also picked up by a Pittsburgh jazz blog of which I and many local and international jazz musicians are members.

First of all I want to say that I believe musicians are entitled to get money for their art. If you work hard at creating something - music that you hear in your head that motivates you to create and express yourself - and at some point after expressing yourself there is money to be made at it, you should get that money.

But this whole thing about BMI and ASCAP going after these deadbeat clubs or coffee shops because these places are denying musicians of their hard earned dollars - that starts heading into the category of malarkey. Or else it only serves to make sure that the big musicians get more money, not the little guys.

The way I see it, the money that these establishments pay to BMI or ASCAP goes into a big pool. It's not as if they're going to make sure that Dean Wareham gets paid for the Galaxie 500 song that might get played in some little boho coffee shop. If a club has a bunch of Blue Note CDs on their jukebox, or if they're played through the sound system, can you guarantee to me that Hank Mobley's estate is going to get a cut of the money? I'm sure that T.S. Monk and Miles Davis' estate both have strong grips on everything associated with their fathers' name and that they will get some percentage of what happens to it. But the rest of the guys? Don't count on it. The money paid to these performance groups probably flows towards the bigger performers. Fill in the blanks with names of them here, because I'm really out of touch with specifics. Let's just use the blanket term American Idol winners.

When I interviewed John Petkovic from Cobra Verde a couple years ago, he told me a story about what happened when the band's version of "Play with Fire" was used on True Blood. Great exposure for the band right? Sure, five guys from Cleveland who have day jobs and still play music get a little more exposure and get a few more downloads of songs. The other thing that came along with this was lawyers representing the Rolling Stones, who called day after day demanding that the figures about how many downloads the band received and how much money they owe the Stones for it. "I was like, you know I understand that Mick and Keith don’t the luxury to fall back on day jobs, but we do. But do you know that the money were talking here is less than the price of two tickets to see the Stones? If I joked [the lawyer said], 'This is a matter of getting publishing and mechanics paid up.'"

In this case, we're talking about ABKCO, the Stones' publishers, which is different than BMI or ASCAP, but it point out the same idea, that the big guys will go after the little guys to squeeze the last nickel and dime out of them, while less established musicians in that same position get very little.

It's also easier to talk about how any type of CD sharing or burning is bad when you know people are out there getting free copies of Britney Spears songs. Poor Britney is being denied her money because people are getting those songs for free. And that's because any copying of CDs is bad, right? You're taking money away from artists who deserve it right?

Well let's look at this: You have all of Thelonious Monk's albums on Riverside and you have the Blue Note box set. You either bought them new or someone got them for your as birthday and Christmas presents. You're interested in his Columbia albums because you might like to add to your collection, although you've read and heard from friends it's not the best period of his career. Very good in parts but not excellent, and maybe it's not worth the $15 risk. So a friend burns you a copy of It's Monk's Time. Turns out you really like it. A year later, you're in a CD store and see a copy of Monk's Dream, another Columbia album, and you decide to buy it based on what you thought of the other album. Six months after that you see Underground and you really dig the front cover. You make a mental note that it might be worth getting someday because it looks like some of the songs aren't on any other Monk album. (This is true. Three songs were new on that album.) Mum and Pop want a Christmas list from you. Since they won't be able to find a Tim Berne CD, you put down Underground.

Now if you're friend hadn't burned It's Monk's Time for you, you might not have ever considered purchasing the other ones. That's because for people who really like music this whole argument about "you burn CDs and you're killing music" is only true to a certain point. People who really like music and put the time, and effort into listening to it, will purchase it. We don't want a wall full of CD cases with handwritten covers.

Let me update that last image: We don't want a long of song titles on our computers taking up space. We want tactile pieces of music. We want artwork. We want liner notes. And we want to hear everything, maybe more than once. (Which gets harder once you pass 40 and kids factor into your daily life.) And as much as this might bug some people, if a person borrows a copy of Andrew Hill's Passing Ships from the library and copies it, there's still a good chance that he or she will buy Hill's Pax or Black Fire knowing that the Andrew Hill name is synonymous with good albums. AND FUNDS ARE LIMITED AND WE CAN'T BUY EVERYTHING.

If record labels limited access to songs - by making it hard to download songs and impossible to get them onto your IPOD unless you bought a tactile CD, what would happen? "Well, uh, then sales would plummet." Yeah, but only people that really wanted the music would buy them.

Jandek in Pittsburgh

Did you know that Jandek played in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago? It seemed like a pretty monumental event since actual performances by this elusive, prolific guy are extremely rare.

I didn't go because I had band practice that night and lately they've been hard to organize. But I heard he played for over two hours with no break. The person who reported this to me said it wasn't all that interesting. I'm interested in any comments on it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Playing catch-up with ESP-Disk

I've been really behind in my commentary of ESP-Disk releases. They've released several new albums in recent months, but this entry is going to just cover reissues. Going back nearly 12 months ago, their reissue series brought back several albums that proved their jazz roster consisted of more than unfettered free blowing, and including frenzied sessions that had plenty of chops to go along with squonking.

In particular, last summer or fall saw the re-release of the Revolutionary Ensemble's Vietnam, a suite divided between both sides of an album that came pretty close to 50 minutes altogether. The Ensemble consisted of violinist Leroy Jenkins, bassist Sirone (who passed away right around the same season of this reissue) and drummer Jerome Cooper. As Sirone stated in the brief liner notes, the trio took its name from the fact that even among the avant garde players, this instrumentation seemed pretty radical. It is a pretty dense sound but Jenkins avoids the nails-on-the-chalkboard fiddle attack in favor of something more harmonic and engaging. Not until the second half of part two does it start to head over the top, and by then they've won you over.

According to the booklet with the Albert Ayler box on Revenant, Charles Tyler left Ayler's band because he didn't want to play with Michel Sampson, a white violinist. If that's the case, it's surprising that Charles Tyler Ensemble includes a cellist named Joel Friedman, whose name implies that he's not only white but Jewish too, another attribute that many militants took issue with. Regardless, Tyler and Friedman make great music together along with Henry Grimes (bass), Ronald Jackson (drums, who is probably the same man who would start using the middle name Shannon before long) and Charles Moffett (orchestral vibes). Tyler plays in a manner similar to Ayler, with long, wide vibrato. Some moments are pretty free while other uses a simple riff life as a jumping off point into some blowing that's pretty heavy for an alto. "Three Spirits" sounds like a sibling of Ayler's famous "Ghosts," and I mean that in the best possible way. Tyler's solos frequently overflow with machine gun delivery of notes, rather than merely taking a few choice tones and wringing the life out of them with extreme vibrato and blowing.

The final album in go-back-and-find-these list is Marion Brown's Why Not? Brown, an overlooked alto saxophonist with a pretty diverse discography, appeared on John Coltrane's Ascension session, but this album reflects the influence of Trane's work about a year prior to that landmark session. Stanley Cowell plays with the dynamic, supportive presence of McCoy Tyner and Rashied Ali fills the drum chair, in a recording that was made the year after Trane died. Sirone fills out the group on bass. The ballad "Fortunato" could be a distant relative of both "After the Rain" and something Jackie McLean might have dreamed up. Two of the four tracks take interesting turns because they sound like they're winding down only to go into another solo, which takes a drastic drop in volume when Sirone is the soloist.

Among ESP's more recent reissues, the one that probably has the most intrigue is Sun Ra's College Tour Volume One: The Complete Nothing Is... Originally a 36-minute album with a few choice selections from a 1966 concert at St. Lawrence University, this two-disc set contains the entire set that generated those tracks, along with a partial second set and soundcheck material.

The liner notes call Nothing Is... "one of the most important albums of its and all time," going on to place it in the presence of two revolutionary albums that would appear one year after the album's release: Are You Experienced and Sergeant Pepper. I'll leave that assessment to more knowledgeable Sun Ra experts, but suffice to say this is some high quality Arkestra work, even in the moments when the rhythm section seems to get ahead of the horns during a swing vamp. One thing liner note writer Russ Musto nails is that the period of this recording was a pretty revolutionary time and Sun Ra was able to get his musicians to shift from steady swing to free shrieks within a song or two. What appeared as individual songs on the initial release now come across as different passages of a bigger picture. (As an aside, the original running order almost went in reverse of how the performances happened, or at least jumped back and forth during the set.)

This version of the Arkestra includes saxophonists/devotees John Gilmore, Marshall Allen and Pat Patrick, bassist Ronnie Boykins and drummer Clifford Jarvis (who turns in another excessively long, somewhat dull solo). Allen's oboe showcase on "The Exotic Forest" over a repetitive bass line and beaucoup percussion, also sounds more engaging amidst everything.

Sonny Simmons' Staying on the Watch can be said to have taken on greater significance in retrospect. For one thing, it's one of the few "new thing" albums to feature a woman on the front horn line, his wife Barbara Donald, whose horn is recorded with a bit of overmodulation, which only adds to the impact of her playing. John Hicks, one of the most prolific pianists, and sideman with a lot of hard bop sessions and, in more recent years, with David Murray, made his debut on Staying on the Watch.

The first track, "Metamorphosis" has a stop-start AABA melody that again reminds me Jackie McLean's Destination Out period, though Simmons has a voice all his own. Hicks proves himself an able accompanist in this setting too. "City of David," the kickoff track for side two continues in this vein, with a pedal point drone riff that launches 15 minutes of free bop exploration. The two tracks that concluded each side both adapt the instrumentation. "A Distant Voice" is a pensive alto and bass duet, while Hicks lays out for "Interplanetary Travelers" which channels Ornette Coleman more so than Sun Ra. Definitely in the upper echelon of the ESP catalog.

One of the more far-flung releases to come in ESP's final years, Michael Gregory Jackson's Clarity finds the guitar player dabbling in chamber music, folk and free blowing, all with the help of David Murray, Oliver Lake and Wadada Leo Smith popping up in different tracks. The title track opens the album in a perfectly odd way, with an acoustic guitar, flute and saxophone trio sounding semi-classical but quickly giving way to a folkie melody that Tim Buckley would've appreciated. "Prelueoionti" has some beautiful picking, but at eight minutes gets a little long for a solo piece. The lack of a genuine rhythm section (Jackson and Lake pick up some percussion occasionally) gives some of the pieces the feel of early Art Ensemble of Chicago with a little more cohesion, like the taut "Oliver Lake" which features its namesake. "A-flat B-flat 1-7-3 degrees" makes that AACM comparison apt, though Anthony Braxton never dueted with wah-wah guitar during this time, as far as I know. Jackson later shifted his focus towards fusion and R&B. This album bears all the signs of an artist trying to figure out where his true interests lie, and that sense provides the album's strength.