Tuesday, June 29, 2010

CD Review: Giuseppi Logan Quintet

The Giuseppi Logan Quintet
(Tompkins Square)

Giuseppi Logan's tone on tenor and alto saxophone was pretty raw and thin back in the '60s, although he did manage to execute some good ideas on those horns. With Don Pullen, Eddie Gomez and Milford Graves backing him up, it was raggedy, but engaging free jazz set. (For more details, see my entry from August 19, 2008)

In recent years, Logan reemerged in New York City, where he was busking in Tompkins Square Park. Then last fall, the label named after that park took him into the studio with Dave Burrell (piano), Warren Smith (drums), Francois Grillot (bass) and Matt Lavelle (on the unusual doubling of trumpet and bass clarinet).

The first thing that hits you upon hearing opening track "Steppin'" is that Lavelle and Logan don't sound in tune with each other. This is not the same kind of "not in tune" criticism that was thrown at Ornette Coleman or Jackie McLean through the years. This is the sound of a saxophone mouthpiece being shoved too far onto the neck of the horn - or maybe not far enough - and no one testing it against the A on the piano. Based on a riff that recalls "Giant Steps," the song's arrangement sounds a little sloppy too, as if no one knew if the head was repeated twice or if it lead straight into the solos. There are several tracks, in fact, where the band seems to have an uncertain feeling where the music should head next, which is surprising for a band that includes Burrell and Smith.

Unlike Logan's ESP albums, this quintet tries to play straightahead jazz rather than blowing free, which is part of the problem. While free musicians can take liberties with regard to things like tempo and intonation, that kind of approach just sounds sloppy in this situation. The ballad "Around" has a pretty theme, but it's hard to get past the sharpness of Logan's tone. "Bop Dues" offers some hope, with a clever head that comes with a "mop-mop" tag at the end of each phrase. Logan only solos briefly, followed by Lavelle who's trumpet solo has a rough but impressive quality.

Ironically, Logan's take on "Blue Moon," where he plays piano, comes off as one of the stronger pieces on the album, because it proves that something delicate can surface amidst all the rawness of his horn playing. The other piano piece, an original called "Love Me Tonight," almost borders on exploitation. Here Logan sings, clearly frail of voice, betraying a set of bad dental work, if he has any at all. The folks at Tompkins Square might have thought this heartfelt message would close the album on a sweet note, but instead it comes off sounding kind of sad.

I'm glad Logan is alive and doing well and getting to play again. But if he's going to record, he needs to be put in a situation that will bring out the best in him. That didn't happen here.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Other stuff I wrote & "Mark your calendar" info

All the CD reviews here on the blog focus mainly on jazz, but that's because I've written about the rock and the roll for other places. Last week at Blurt, they ran my review of Goodbye Killer, the latest album by my beloved Pernice Brothers: http://www.blurt-online.com/news/view/3821/.

This week, I filed a review of the Germs' final performance, Live at the Starwood, December 3, 1980, which ought to be up any day now. They also have a few reviews in the can from me, the names of which I'll drop when they're up on the site.

There's a pretty interesting singer-songwriter named Rebecca Pronsky coming to Pittsburgh in a few weeks. I just wrote a preview for her July 8 show for City Paper. That'll be up on the site and in print by Wednesday. In the meantime, check her out at http://www.rebeccapronsky.com/. She has a really great voice that's a lot like Neko Case. Her 2007 album Departures and Arrivals is especially strong, though she also did an EP last year called The Best Game in Town.

Speaking of shows coming to Pittsburgh, free improv drummer William Hooker is coming here on July 12! [Date corrected since this entry was initially published.] That should be a pretty great show because his new album Yearn for Certainty is really strong. I just filed a review with JazzTimes. It has Sabir Mateen playing saxophones on it, and he really sounds great. (He's also on the latest from trombonist Steve Swell, which I also wrote about for JT. It's a great album and Mateen is really earth shattering there too.) Hopefully Sabir will be coming with Hooker.

Before that show happens, Kahil El'Zabar & Hamiett Blueitt are coming back to town on July 5 to the Thunderbird Cafe. Thoth Trio is opening, which is kind of a rare event in and of itself because those guys are all on different schedules and rarely get a chance to play together.

And the big show I already have tickets for................... drum roll, please....... on July 10.......is Johnny Mathis!

Yes, that's right folks, I'm going to see Johnny freakin' Mathis. Two friends of mine from work (one is Erin from the Love Letters) and I all thought we ought to check it out. Since all three of us thought the same thing, it's a slamdunk. Expect a dispatch.

Friday, June 25, 2010

CD review: Chicago Underground Duo - Boca Negra

Chicago Underground Duo
Boca Negra
(Thrill Jockey)

Bill Dixon's death made me think about the Chicago Underground Duo, specifically their Boca Negra album that came out a few months ago. Dixon had collaborated with CUD member Rob Mazurek in his other project, the Exploding Star Orchestra, and his playing reminded me a bit of Dixon's anyway, so I thought it was time to pull that disc out again and write about it.

Glad I did because it sounds even stronger than it did a few months ago. Maybe I just needed time to get to know it a little bit better, and listen to it with a different set of ears or expectations. The Chicago Underground Duo, which is completed by drummer/percussionist Chad Taylor can't really be listened to the same way that you listen to jazz. They're a little more AMM than ECM. They create sound sculptures that should be explored more for their sonic architecture than for the way Mazurek blows and Taylor cooks. "Left Hand of Darkness" has some weird electronics, coupled with some pitch bending and tremolo, while the trumpet gets bathed in echo. Two songs later on "Quantum Eye," things get all wobbly and trippy, like the Duo is playing underwater.

What can be really disarming about Boca Negra is how several songs sound like the work of more than two musicians. "Confliction" has a bass riff (preprogrammed on keys or samplers, presumably) with drums following along with it, and the whole thing almost sounds like a Soft Machine piece. "Spy on the Floor" does sound like a riff to a spy movie theme, with a lot of bass and drums, pausing frequently for a vibes breakdown in the middle of it. In a cover of Ornette Coleman's "Broken Shadows" Taylor is actually dueting with himself, since his loose drumming backs up the vibes, which state the melody. His free drumming sounds like it could have been played first, as he sang the future vibes part in his head. Or maybe he played the vibes first, leaving enough room for free drumming. It sounds like overthinking, but actually these questions make the piece, and in turn the whole album, a little more compelling as they draw you in.

Some of the album gets pretty repetitive. The synthetic loop of "Hermeto" gets to be a bit much, but when Taylor and Mazurek groove on mbira and trumpet duet ("Laughing with the Sun") and distort both instruments, they added sound manipulation keeps the scene from getting drab.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Perfect Pitch?

Sunday night, Jennie asked me how good I was at hearing pitches and knowing what notes they were. She blew on an empty water bottle and I guessed that it might be an A. Donovan told her it was a B when she blew on it for him earlier in the day. Curious, I decided to go to the piano and play a B to see how close he was. Since he was still awake in his crib upstairs, I had to do it quietly.

He was right. It was B.

Last night I decided to test his ear when we were in the living room. I started off with something easy and played Middle C. "Hey, Donovan, what note is this?"


"How about this?"


"What's this one?"


He got all of them right. In case you think it was a lucky guess - I wondered the same thing - I banged an A# on the xylophone a few minutes later. He got that one too. When I played the piano, he was across the room, and when I played the xylophone, he had his back to me. There were no lucky guesses.

This morning I played my favorite key to see if the magic was still there in his head. "That's an F#."

It's cool enough that the two musical acts he mentions by name are Echo & the Bunnymen and Sun Ra, but perfect pitch? That's crazy. Well maybe not. He's been exploring that piano obsessively for about six months now.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Bill Dixon, RIP

...or should I call this entry, "Here's one of those entries where I get maudlin again."

(By the way, playing right now: Chicago Underground Duo - Boca Negra)

I just got an email that trumpeter Bill Dixon passed away on Wednesday at the age of 84. He had been battling an unidentified illness for the last two years. Which means he was probably not in the best of health when he recorded with the Exploding Star Orchestra for Thrill Jockey. Not that you could tell that by the quality of his playing.

Dixon had a pretty unique style of trumpet playing. For years I thought the master version of "With (Exit)" on Cecil Taylor's Conquistador was inferior to the alternate take because in the master, Bill sounded like he lost his embouchure and was blowing a lot of air and the notes were slipping away. Then a couple years ago, I heard a recent recording by him and discovered this is an intentional way he plays. It's his style.

If you're suffering from some disease, would you keep it a secret from the public? If you've built your career on defiance and the pursuit of original ideas, chances are you wouldn't want to sound like you're trying to get sympathy for your situation. You just keep plowing on. I mean, look at David S. Ware. He soldiered on while in need of a kidney transplant doing dialysis by himself. He's not in the best of health, but he's still here. Do we sit back and say, "Wow, that's really a shame," and leave it at that, or should we do something else? Buy albums? Pray?

Sorry, no answers tonight, just a bunch of rhetorical questions.

By the way, here's the official Bill Dixon obit, provided by his family: http://www.improvisedcommunications.com/blog/2010/06/17/dixon-obit

Thursday, June 10, 2010

CD Review: Kenny Dorham - The Flamboyan, Queens, NY 1963

Kenny Dorham
The Flamboyan, Queens, NY 1963

During the late '80/early '90s, we college radio geeks had different perspectives on what made a band successful in our eyes. A band that released an album on a label like Homestead, SST or, later Matador, was about to get blown out of the water and make a name for themselves, or so it seemed. The reality was that a band on any of those probably wasn't all that different from an underground band in Pittsburgh (heck, our own Weird Paul Petrosky fit both criteria) except that they had an album on those labels. And maybe a few more people around the country knew about them.

50 years later, nearly everyone who released an album on Blue Note Records is looked at as anything from unappreciated genius to god. For a musician to be on that label, it meant that you had it made. The reality is that these jazz musicians might really have been on the same boat as indie rockers were in the early days of the labels mentioned above. Time has a way of changing perspectives on things like this.

All this came to mind while listening to this release from Upfront Records of a radio broadcast of Kenny Dorham's quintet. Dorham, the trumpeter who had played with Charlie Parker and later held a spot in the original Jazz Messengers, was leading a group with tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson in 1963. The pairing was considered a hot commodity. Henderson was the new guy in town, about to be record with the trumpeter and eventually get signed to his own Blue Note contract. One year later, he'd appear on Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder," which turned the imprint into a successful label.

So it's ironic to hear these two playing on a Monday night at a bar in Queens that must not have been very full, judging by radio MC Alan Grant's virtual pleas to listeners to stop by and check it out, which almost sound a little desperate. What's even more illuminating is that the band doesn't sound like their firing on all cylinders at the beginning of that night, although that could be the fault of the recording not bringing out everyone's true nature. Pianist Ronnie Matthews has some punchy comps during his own "Dorian" that borrow from McCoy Tyner's solo in "My Favorite Things." (That piece and this one feature bassist Steve Davis, it should be noted.) But Dorham's solo consists of long tones and quick phrases that don't always connect to a full idea. Henderson stokes the fires though those fast triplets that he'd unleash in "The Sidewinder" and in a few of his own pieces.

Henderson sounds ready to cook from the beginning, but Dorham takes a few tunes to sound close to the Kenny Dorham. It happens around "My Injun From Brazil," which thankfully was retitled "Una Mas" by the time it was recorded in the studio. By this part of the set, the quintet has gone through passable versions of "I Can't Get Started" and "Summertime," the latter getting a little more kick going for it. By the time the Dorham original is reached, the trumpeter is engaged in some spry staccato lines, with drummer J.C. Moses (a Pittsburgher, which is mentioned by Grant!) doing some good ride cymbal work behind him. Moses plays it pretty straight, not going in the direction he would with Eric Dolphy or the New York Contemporary Five with Archie Shepp, but he's still solid.

By the time they get to "Dynamo (Straight Ahead)" they start to chew up the song's "I Got Rhythm" chord changes. Good things might've been coming in the next set, but unfortunately that's the end of the show, and Grant signs off and the music fades after four minutes. Speaking of Grant, the DJ serves as a good host, without any of the condescending swarm of Symphony Sid or acting with the pretentious hipster aura of radio men that might follow him. When he talks to Dorham he doesn't sound stiff either, but respectful. It's another sad reminder of something that you can't get on commercial radio anymore: live people on the air after midnight broadcasting a live performance, which you could potentially attend if you were still making plans that late in the evening.

Aside from that bout of nostalgiz, The Flamboyan doesn't exactly rank as required listening or a holy grail of hard bop, but does have some fine moments from two strong players who were a bit under the radar in comparison to some of their peers.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Love Letters at Irma Freeman Center

On Friday, work was pretty busy and felt like a constant game of Beat the Clock. If that wasn't enough, I got there nice and early, only to realize - as I was walking across the parking lot - that I had forgotten to pack my change of clothes for the Love Letters show that night. And there was no way I was going to wear a work t-shirt during our set - as much as I love the company that employs me. So I drove home, expletives spewing out that car window, and got the clothes.

The Love Letters played at the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, a really beautifully designed gallery in Garfield. As part of the First Fridays/Unblurred/gallery crawl that happens each month, our set was one of three performances that coincided with an opening of an exhibition of Evan Knauer's paintings. (Evan is the brother of LL's guitarist Buck and is a Pittsburgh music vet himself). I missed Erin Snyder's classical duo since I was still at work, and I arrived as the trio of Bob Wentzel (sax), Emmett Frisbee (bass) and Winston Goode (drums) were playing.

Once I got there, all the stress of the day started to dissipate. I had been looking forward to this show more than I realized and a lot of people whom I was hoping to see were there: my sister, a long lost friend who recently stumbled across me, this friend's mom (who was more like a bonus guest) and another friend who had an art closing that same night and still managed to arrive and turn our set into a dance party.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The room where we played is a converted garage, which looks great but still might be a little boomy and echoey. We weren't worried, though and there was a p.a. for all four vocals so the voices could compete with the instruments. I couldn't hear the voices clearly, so I'm not sure if I was on key but it felt like it. We started with "The Last One," which is a pretty charged-up number when we're firing on all cylinders. And I think we were. It was a good indicator of what was to come.

One of the things that I want to do with the band is dig up songs by old local bands (i.e. my friends) that would otherwise be lost to the ether. This is sort of an extension of playing songs I wrote in previous bands, I suppose. We've done at least three Mofones songs, and one Bone of Contention song. (A new Love Letters song is a rewrite of one of my old songs, but that was conceived about four or five years ago, so maybe that doesn't count.)

So far, we've done a song by Catamount and one by the Smoking Pets (which was never released). A few months ago, Buck has brought up the idea of doing a song or two by his first band, Cousin It. They were a great band, existing right around the time that Bone of Contention first came together, and I always liked them. "Shower of Dreams" is/was a great psychedelic droning pop song with room for a lot of harmonies. Not only was I thrilled to do it, but Buck was going to sing lead. Something he's never done in 24 years of playing in bands.

The last practice before the show, I asked if he was going to introduce the song that night. "Uh, no." Fine with me, because even though a little context would've been nice, I wasn't about to tell him what to do. But sure enough, he gave a nice intro and some background that night. Playing it felt really good. Playing Aimee's new song felt good too, even though I messed it up and only by the grace of Erin our drummer did it hang together while the three of us got our balance.

Then there were the dancers who showed up about 1/3 or halfway through the set and brought more energy to the room. It was a good time. And it made going to work the next day kind of hard. Mostly because I felt a little sore.

We need to book another show.