Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tonight in the jukebox

Playing right now: Hafez Modirzadeh - Dandelion (bought it at his show last week.)

Tonight's listening pleasure included: Liz Phair's Whip-Smart, which has held up remarkably well, especially the first half of it, which I like best; Big Brother & the Holding Company's version of "Ball and Chain," which beats the pants off the live version on Janis' greatest hits album if only because the searing guitar work holds up under repeated listens better than Janis' "I don't understand why half the world is cryin'...., man...." spoken interlude; and Sonic Youth's Confusion is Sex, which is not a consistant album, but when it's good it's really dangerous. It reminds me of being 16 and getting my head blown off. And knowing that I could clear a room by playing it.

Between "Ball and Chain" and Sonic Youth, I had to check out the BB&tHC performance of that song from the Monterey Pop movie courtesy of youtube. Janis is stunning. Absolutely electrifying. After than I had to see Jimi Hendrix smash his guitar after "Wild Thing," also at Monterey. That's probably the most pornographic rock and roll performance ever. And I mean better than GWAR because Jimi was just doing what comes naturally. The best part is after he set the guitar on fire, it's still making noise. Even after he starts smashing it. Amazing.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

CD Review: Mike Reed's People, Places & Things: Stories and Negotiations

Mike Reed's People, Places & Things
Stories and Negotiations
(482 Music)

Even when some of those Chicago guys pay homage to past masters, they still sound like they're on a modern track. The latest by drummer Mike Reed's People, Places & Things bares this out. A percolating group improv kicks off the opening minutes of the album, giving the faint impression that the octet will be blowing free for the entire program. But after a few minutes, they lock into some hard-swinging bop in the form of John Jenkins' "Song of a Star." This might be a lot more straight ahead than the previous minutes alluded to, but Reed's version of straight swings much like Sun Ra's Arkestra (more on them to come) did: the rhythm section moves with so much authority, with a propulsive beat and taut basslines, and takes it beyond any older period of the music and lands with a crash in the here and now.

Reed started PP&T to focus on "under-recorded, under-recognized aspects of the vibrant Chicago jazz scene circa 1954-60" and they've released two previous CDs. This one expands the concept because the core quartet of Reed, Jason Roebke (bass), Tim Haldemen (tenor sax) and Greg Ward (alto sax) are joined by three players from that era - one time Arkestra member Art Hoyle (trumpet, flugelhorn), bandleader Ira Sullivan (trumpet) and extensive sideman and leader Julian Priester (trombone) - plus one more Windy City modern cat, Jeb Bishop (trombone). Less a meeting of old blood and young blood, the 2008 concert recorded for this album presented a group where everyone was on the same page. In explaining the solo order, the liner notes say that the trombonists have a vastly different sound from one another and only attributes one specific solo to Bishop. The rest is just guesswork for the listener. It's frustrating to those of us who want to be sure, but it also shows how cohesively this band works together.

Reed picked four relative deep cuts for the set from the city's history: the aforementioned "Song of a Star" by an alto player known to this writer predominantly for an appearance on an early Hank Mobley album; Sun Ra's "El is a Sound of Joy" is built on a vicious groove pinned down by one of the tenors while the other horns blow in and around it. Wilbur Campbell's "Wilbur's Tune" is another strong piece in a hard bop-esque mold as is Priester's "Urnack" which he recorded with Sun Ra and here starts like "Song" with two minutes of free exchanges of ideas. Clifford Jordan's "Lost and Found" features Sullivan and Haldeman in an old style tenor duel, as well as a penetrating solo from Hoyle, who throws in a quote from "Little Rootie Tootie" as things almost unwind.

The drummer also penned one piece each for the veteran guests of the set. "Third Option," for Hoyle, has rich voicings that ought to impress fans of large ensembles as traditional as the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which speaks to Reed's skills as a composer. "Door #1," dedicated to Priester, begins like a loose tone poem, before locking into a progression that could slip into "You Don't Know What Love Is," with an exquisite quality to match that standard. Sullivan's salute, "The And of 2," features not only his tenor but Ward's alto getting prodded along by shouts from the other horns during solos.

What feels especially exciting, musically, about this meeting of minds is that Stories and Negotiations looks at the past but it concerns itself with making today's music that's more than just a tribute.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Part two

There was an article in the Post-Gazette previewing the ElSaffar/Modirzadeh show, where ElSaffar mentioned that most of the suites that he and Modirzadeh composed are written out and don't rely as much on improvisation. So I went in to the Warhol show thinking about that and trying to separate the written from the spontaneous. A lot of it did seem mapped out and similar to what I remember specifically from the album. (I listened to a lot when reviewing it, but I don't know it inside out. Something like this takes a long time to wrap your head around.)

A remarkable thing about the opening notes of ElSaffar's "Copper Suite" is how you can really feel the vibrations between the notes that he and Modirzadeh play. It was almost like when you're tuning a guitar and playing two strings together: the farther you get from the correct pitch on one of the strings, the more the sound vibrates. First they played long pitches like that, then they started echoing each other. Alex Cline was rolling all over his drum kit and it was loud and relatively free, but it never got bombastic, never to that feverish point that a lot of free drummers hit. Mark Dresser was plucking his bass strings really harshly. It sounded like he was really clenching his fingers on them.

When Modirzadeh took what seemed like a solo, he stopped fingering the pads of his saxophone and just grabbed the bell of his tenor sax, letting his mouth bend the pitches of the notes. Earlier in the piece, he started playing the upper pads of the sax with both of his hands, whereas normally the right hand handles the lower pads. It's all part of reworking these instruments to incorporate scales and pitches that they weren't built to play.

Modirzadeh's "Radif-E-Kayhan" bears some Ornette Coleman influence, but to really imagine that comparison accurately you almost have to take Ornette's ideas and utilize a different set of scales and tones to play them. About five minutes into the piece, Dresser started playing a blues riff of sorts, to which Cline responded with some press rolls and fills to kept it from getting too complacent. ElSaffar wailed and peeped before it shifted back to a rubato tempo and then on to a 4/4 tempo. When ElSaffar started playing with a Harmon mute, the band took on the spectre of the Miles Davis' famed Plugged Nickel performances. This was equally as spacey. A passing phrase almost sounding like a disembodied quote from "Hot House" in there too.

All four of those guys were incredible. The two leaders of course made their instruments do things that no one has really done before, in terms of playing foreign musics on them. Dresser was great, holding down the helm or going off on his own tear. Cline did a lot but made it seem like a piece of cake. You could tell he was really listening to everyone by what and how he played.

Amir ElSaffar & Hafez Modirzadeh

On Saturday night the Andy Warhol Museum presented a performance by trumpeter Amir ElSaffar and tenor saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh, two amazing musicians who just happen to be Iraqi-American and Iranian-American respectively. Plus their rhythm section consisted of bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Alex Cline. I recently wrote a review of their album Radif Suite (Pi Recordings) for JazzTimes so I extra stoked for this show.

Like the album, the performance consisted of the two suites, one each penned by one of the horn men. It's pretty fascinating music because it involves scales (that might not be the accurate terminology) and pitches that don't really exist in Western notation, along with harmonic combinations that us Western folks would find dissonant. At the same time, it means that this music is really new and exciting. It's stuff that might sound familar, but ultimately you've never heard it before.

More details forthcoming..........

Record Store Day, after the fact

Playing right now: Dave Holland Octet - Pathways

I missed Record Store again this year because I had to work on Saturday, per usual. At 6 p.m. I was ready to stop at Paul's CDs to see what they had, and also because I had a few discs waiting for me (ironically, it was the little shiny plastic things I was ready to purchase instead of the big black ones). But there weren't any parking spaces close to the store, and the family was in the car, and I was a little tired. So I went yesterday. What I needed wasn't contingent on getting there on record store day. Plus, with 45 minutes until closing, I knew that I had missed the boat on any of the big magic from that day.

I could have picked up the special Record Store Day edition of the Dave Holland Octet CD, for the price of two copies of the regular disc. Had it included another disc of music, I would've grabbed it without a second thought. But it had five concert posters in it, which are nice I'm sure, but didn't strike me as mandatory. If my tax refund had arrived before the weekend, there's a good chance I would've squandered $83 on the six-10"-records edition of the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs. That's a lot of getting up to change the records between sides, but it's also a lot of beautiful 10" records.

The only real Record Store Day exclusive I purchased was a Moby Grape live 45. I'm pretty sure the version of "Rounder" is the same one that I have on the two-disc comp from the 1990s, but the version of "Sitting by the Window" is unavailable anywhere else. Yoink.

I finally picked up the latest Lou Barlow album, Goodnight Unknown, which is as awesome as I hoped it would be. Also got Grant Hart's most recent solo disc and a recent remastered version of Cecil Taylor's Conquistador, which I only had on tape.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Another crazy record from my past

Last night there was a record fair, of sorts, at Belvedere's in Lawrenceville. It reminded me of the record fairs that I attended in the '80s, except this one was held in a bar, and it was free to set up tables and hawk your wares. Plus, if you wanted to smoke or have a beer while wandering around the tables of vinyl, that was okay too.

I picked up a small handful of albums, but the one that got me really geeked was not the original RCA copy of Charlie Mingus' Tijuana Moods but the copy of Ted Heath's The Big Ones.

This was an album that my family had on 8-track as a kid and it eventually met its demise after I played it one too many times. The album features the British Heath leading his big band through classic pop hits from the late '60s/early '70s like "Spinning Wheel," "Light My Fire" and "Good Morning Starshine," among others. Back when I heard it, I always had a naive trust in musicians. As far as I was concerned they knew what they were doing and there was no such thing as a really bad idea, musically speaking. Playing "Satisfaction" on a trombone with a plunger mute? Surrrrrrrrrrrrrrre, why not? Follow that chorus with a modulation and give the melody over to the oboe? Why not? Sometimes you come to your senses and think, what the Sam Hill is going on here? That happened Friday night when I got home and slapped this critter on the turntable. But not necessarily in a bad way.

The Big Ones contains a good number of arrangements from Squaresville like that. But it has a lot of great drum breaks that rescue such tunes like the stiffest reading of "Spinning Wheel" ever. As the record proceeds, through "Light My Fire" and its amusing acoustic guitar and bongos intro, through "Woman Woman" and "Nights in White Satin," Side One closes with "Get Back" which starts off a bit like a marching band and switches to a swinging 2/2 riff that opens up room for solos. Maybe this album will work, you think.
Side Two comes out fighting - which is surprising considering that it begins with "In the Year 2525." When I finally heard Zager and Evans' original version of the song, it was a huge letdown. Not only where the lyrics idiotic in a way that tries to convey a deep message about the Future and the Man without having any of the tools to pull of such a feat, but it had none of the firepower of this version. With each new verse, the band gets fuller and louder, like when the trombones who come in during the second phrase, evoking the feeling of the secret police that are marching down your street to stop any free thinking. (Hey - music evokes images. ) And not only does this song have multiple drum breaks, it has two drummers! In different channels! Two-bar break in the right channel. Two-bar break in the left channel. Add in some key changes, and a rubato guitar intro, and you've got a kick-ass big band. My only hope is that several high school marching bands got ahold of this chart during the '70s and wailed away on this.

Where do you go from there? Well, Ted and the gang proceeds to the 5th Dimension's "Don'cha Hear Me Calling To Ya" which turns out like Gerald Wilson's big band version of "Viva Torado" in the way that it riffs, shifts up a half-step and then comes back down. "Good Morning Starshine" has a Tonight Show-style arrangement, meaning a little square. But without those idiotic "gloop gloopy" lyrics and with the addition of some killer press rolls and drum fills during the fade-out, it succeeds. The album closes with a Tom Jones' "Love Me Tonight" that has the dynamics worthy of the singer himself. And a killer vibes solo. And some tympani breaks.

Finding The Big Ones was definitely one of those purchases that takes me back to my younger, carefree days. I have a feeling a lot of musical things on this album have shaped my listening a lot more than I realize. I'll enjoy all the goofiness as much as the well-executed moments. So while $8 was a little steep for such an album, it was worth it because I've already gotten at least $5 of pleasure out of it. Besides, it's in excellent shape.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Dig - it's Harry Babasin!

Sometimes I get the idea in my head that I need to find a certain record (it's usually a record; rarely a CD) for no other reason than I want to hear it, as soon as possible. Right around the time that Bud Shank died, I got curious about Harry Babasin, the bassist on several of the saxophonist's early 10"s. Part of the interest stemmed from his name. I don't know if BAB-a-sin is the correct pronunciation, but if it's said that way, it sounds like a set of scat syllables. And Eugene Chadbourne wrote a very detailed biography of Harry on that made him sound like more than just an obscure West Coast cat. Turns out he was a cellist in addition to a bassist.

The Babasin Bug died off not too long after that. In fact, I came across one of his albums at Jerry's last summer and ended up putting it back because I already had about three with me. And it didn't have the appealing, "original pressing" lure of some albums.

Well, there I was in Jerry's yesterday when I stumbled across a copy of the self-titled album by the Jazzpickers, a quintet spearheaded by Mr. HB. On EmArcy, with the infamous "drummer logo," it had all the trappings of the Find of the Day. I just got through the first side of it, and it's pretty swinging. It didn't occur to me right away, but there's no bass on the whole album. Crazy, man. At least for that time period.

I'm guessing the quintet pre-dated the Chico Hamilton group because the liner notes don't compare the guitar/cello/flute instrumentation to that group, and the sound is pretty similar: subdued but burning underneath. Plus, Buddy Collette is on this album, and he was in the original Hamilton group. There's no mention of Harry's stints with Bud Shank either.

Another point of interest, sort of, is the band itself. Boy, these cats are the squarest looking bunch of dudes ever. Well, Harry has the Dave Brubeck/egghead look going on. But vibist/drummer Bob Harrington looks like Jack Webb's homely brother, and guitarist Don Overberg should've learned to smile without letting his bad teeth show. Collette and drummer Bill Douglas look okay, but they have a lot to balance out.

It just goes to show you that you can never judge a jazz band by their looks. I guess back then not everyone could look as hip as the Jazz Messengers.

Monday, April 05, 2010

...and while we're speaking of the Verlaines

In the time that I didn't blog over the last month, I've had more and more cravings for albums that I listened to 20-some years ago. Maybe I've finally reached that age where all I'm really interested in are albums that I played a lot in my, uh, youth.

The Verlaines' Bird Dog was one such album. It fell into my hands in the summer of 1988. A fanzine that I published (very sporadically) called Discourse occasionally received albums from Homestead Records, which was releasing several bands from the Verlaines' New Zealand home at that time. Over the next year or so, the label would familiarize us all with the musical force that was New Zealand. This was really my first exposure to it. (They released an album by the Chills around that same time, but that didn't spark the interest right away.)

From the beginning of Bird Dog, guitarist/singer Graeme Downes indicates that he's not a standard writer by any means - this isn't punk rock, nor is some modern version of folk. He sings in an impassioned voice that often goes into high tenor territory, taking the drama up there with it. An easy comparison to a singer of that era would be Billy Bragg, but only in delivery. Downes sounds like he has a lot more training. (As a side note, he was working on a Masters on the music of Gustav Mahler, so he wasn't just some punk with a good set of pipes.)

"Makes No Difference" was an unusual opening piece since it moves along slowly, with a sad trumpet and harmonica break at the end of each chorus. But the melody and vaguely dark lyrics make it riveting. "Just Mum" has a bassoon, of all instruments, joining the trio in the coda. It starts off playing just two long tones and the simplicity and tension of the second note adds an ominous edge to the music. I'm not sure if "baroque pop" was a term that someone else applied to the Verlaines, or if I came up with that. Regardless, songs like this justify it.

Nothing in the first few songs prepare you for punch that comes with Side One's last track, "Slow Sad Love Song." After a low bass note and a few distant notes blown from an oboe, Downes begins a tense lyric about the aftermath of a relationship, which again comes in indirect but brilliant verses. When the tempo increases, it builds to a climax, in which he lays his heart and life on the line:

The only thing that you spared me to love was your breath
and now it's gone
So long, it's been good to know you
So long, it's been good to know you

and in what always seemed like a pretty deeply cutting line:

Sooooooooooooo long....... to know you

which he ends with a wail that takes the band into the biggest, most thunderous climax since "A Day in the Life." That song probably inspired this ending, but instead of trying to induce some sort of euphoria, the Verlaines create the sound that someone hears in their head after they've thrown themselves off a cliff. And it goes on for several seconds, making sure that you understand what the character is feeling. I was nursing a broken heart at the time, so that angst (oh yeah, I was 20) really resonated with me. All these years later, it still packs a wallop because it's done so well.

If you listen to the CD version of Bird Dog (that format was just entering the independent label field by then), the next song presents a more hopeful comedown. The jazzy, acoustic "Only Dream Left" almost implies that Downes didn't do himself in, but has moved on and has found someone to help him cope, albeit someone with a heavy weight on their shoulders if the title is any indication. But anyone who has the album edition would need to peel themselves up off the floor after that huge roar before they can breathe freely.

There are plenty of other reasons to recommend Bird Dog, but "Slow Sad Love Song" is reason enough to hunt it down. "Worth the price of admission," and all those other great musical cliches.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

On being a writer

Playing right now: Satoko Fujii's Mado - Desert Ship

I was emailing with a fellow music writer a few days ago. This is a guy who's been writing about music for ages. As an example, I recently pulled out the Verlaines' Bird Dog (from 1988) and said writer's byline was among the clips in the press kit that included reviews of previous albums. (More to come on that album in an upcoming post.) Suffice to say this is someone that I sort of look up to, or even envy.

The reason we were writing was that I bemoaning the trouble of getting paid for some freelance gigs, and he agreed, even going on to say that he recently filled out an application at a Home Depot. Maybe he was joking around, but I kind of doubt it.

Wow, I thought. After 20-some years, it's come to this. A guy who's a vet in the industry, who could write rings around most young buck writers half his age (and he does) might have to take a job at a Home freakin' Depot. Nothing against that store. Hell, I was there today. But it's a sad state of affairs for music journalism that a guy of that high caliber can't make a living by writing about music anymore. Where does that leave a mid-level or sub-mid-level yutz like me? Maybe I have it okay with my retail job and my occasional freelance gigs.