Saturday, July 31, 2010

The week in music - in person and (soon to be) in print

Playing right now: Ornette Coleman - The Great London Concert. (Specifically, "Falling Stars," which features both Ornette's trumpet and violin work. He's no Billy Bang, but the fiddle wasn't as bad as I expected.)

It's been a week of writing. I even called off a day from work to make sure I'd get things done. The biggest thing was a piece on Allan Sherman, whose Warner Bros albums are all being reissued in September. Blurt is running a short piece in their fall issue, and I interviewed Allan's son Robert, as well as Dr. Demento, who wrote the liner notes for all the albums. (Weird Al's people gave me a generic "Sorry, no can do.") Both of the interviewees were great. Robert spoke at length about his dad and how his gift for parodies developed. We talked for about an hour. Dr. Demento was also a great interview, very friendly and able to give me some great quotes. The struggle was getting all the info and a couple good quotes into a 300-word piece. (Something longer will appear on the Blurt website.)

I also had to review the new Blonde Redhead and Azure Ray albums by yesterday. And if all that wasn't enough, I had to review four albums for JazzTimes by Wednesday. One of those reviews covered three different albums by one artist, and one was a two-disc set.

Between all that, the Aram Shelton Quartet finally made it to town. (Note: I say that because I thought they were coming a week earlier, and when I discovered there was another week of anticipation, I wanted to see them more.) They came to the Thunderbird, and first let me say that it was odd how much several of them reminded me of people I know or have seen around town.

Three out of the four of them have played in the revolving leadership band Fast Citizens - alto saxophonist Shelton, tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson and bassist Anton Hatwich. Drummer Marc Riordan is the newcomer of the band. This quartet recently released a CD on Shelton's own label (These Times, on Single Speed, from which their set drew pretty heavily.

Shelton is an interesting alto player, influenced a good deal by Ornette Coleman, by his own admission, but the music doesn't end up sounding like Coleman Quartet Worshippers No. 232. In the song "These Times" he started his solo in the lower register of his alto and hung around there for a remarkable amount of time before getting into the more significant trademark alto area. During the same tune, Jackson took a tenor solo that reminded me of John Tchicai, in the way that he played freely - or maybe arhythmically is a better word - over the rhythm section and still managed to interact with them. There were elements of modern post-bop in the music, as well as some more droning moments. Shelton doubled on clarinet, which he really gave a unique voice, thanks to his exploratory nature. Jackson switched to bass clarinet on a couple tunes too. [Note - I took fairly copious notes that night, but I can't find them and don't want to delay this review so this is all I'll write on the topic.]

I tried to get more people to come out to the show and had a few lined up to meet me there, but they all had to cancel out or email me later explaining what was up. Jackson said he might be coming back in October with another outfit, the Chicago Luzerne Exchange, so maybe if that happens I can get some hipsters out to see it.

Last night, Gooski's had show featuring a band from Omaha called Landing on the Moon. I caught about half their set and found them pretty amazing. Very loud five piece with 2 guitars, keys, bass and drums, with the lead guitar player handling a lot of the singing. The drummer did a lot of harmonies too, even while he was tearing out some unorthodox accents.

I was actually there to check out a new local band called Neighbors, on the advice of a friend who I bumped into last weekend. He's tight with the singer of the band, Mike, who I also kind of know. I'm glad I took his advice to check them out. (The recommendation was that they were close to the "noisy pop" description that applied to the Love Letters.) They kind of had me hooked on the first chord, some kind of 7th chord, which made it sound like a Bacharach tune. Overall they had a sort of Jam sound going for them. A band called Satin Gum played third but I split before they went on, only because I was tired.
Speaking of tired I have nodded off about three times since I started this entry. Time to go.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

William Hooker beats the heat

"So it this music blues or jazz?"

A 50-something fella asked me that last Monday at the Thunderbird, pointing at the albums that William Hooker was setting up on his merchandise table. The real answer to that question is, "Neither." So I was naturally hesitant to say "jazz" since "It's free improv," is the more sensible answer. Plus I was worried that Hooker might actually hear this exchange and go off on how his music isn't jazz.

I forget exactly what I said, but this guy said he asked because he thought it might be blues and that Hooker might be John Lee Hooker's son. Hmm, I wondered. Is that because his name is Hooker and he's black? Are you that naive? A few minutes later, I was sitting out on the stoop waiting for a phone call and the guy came out again and repeated what he told me inside. This time I used the phrase "free improv" and he said, "What's that?" I should've said "Noise," but I didn't want to have the guy decide to leave and I still didn't feel like being blunt.

When I went back in, Matta Gawa, the opening band, was tearing it up. I mean tearing. Drummer Sam Lohman was crashing and exploding all over his kit. Next to him Ed Ricart was triggering some bass-like loops and tearing it up over top of them. It got to a point where the effects were getting as much attention and tweaking as his fretboard, but his playing still had a strong basis in melody, as fragmented and wild as it might have been. In other words, he was not just noodling and skronking for his own personal satisfaction. One tune - all were improvisations - had the same feel as one of the ballads on the Sonny Sharrock Ask the Ages album: it combined delicate melodic work with a smouldering undercurrent.

I had hoped that William Hooker might be playing with Sabir Mateen since their interaction on the drummer's latest album was so great. But that kind of double-bill (at least it is for us Pittsburghers) was not going to happen for a $12 cover. Not only did Hooker not bring Mateen, he didn't bring anyone with him. He played solo.

Some people walked out before his 40-minute set was completed (the heat of the room didn't make it any easier) but I found the whole thing pretty captivating. Plus Hooker has such a command of his kit. His presence made me stop and play close attention, waiting to see where he would take things. He rolled on his cymbals for a good five minutes at the beginning before he finally moved to his drums. When he did, he pulled some great low pitches out of his floor tom. The way he played made the whole thing feel like a musical statement too, not just some tinkering on the trap kit.

Hooker was set up slightly towards stage left so the main focus was the screen behind him. It projected a computer program throughout the whole set, beginning with rather typical "objects on a desert landscape" kind of scene. As it continued, though, this got a little more detailed and beyond the ordinary, much like the set. It was hard to tell if he was playing "along with" the images or the synchronization was just coincidental.

The whole thing last the perfect length for me - about 40 minutes, and including some brief bits of spoken word text at certain points. They all seemed to riff on the first installment: "Feel the heat of the third rail. Don't touch!" Some of it was clearly too much for folks in the audience, including the gent I might at the beginning of the night. To his credit, he checked out most of Matta Gawa and sat through a bit of Hooker's set, but didn't make it to the end. I stayed for the duration, but once I said my goodbyes, I too tried to cool off and get away from the hot room.

I thought Aram Shelton was coming this Monday, but it turns it, his show is a week later. That's not necessarily bad news, but I was hoping to see him sooner. Boooooooooooooooo!

Rebecca Pronsky reflections

Playing right now: Lou Reed & John Cale - Songs for Drella
(It was the next disc in the CD player after one that I have to review.)

I never got a chance to write anything about going to see Rebecca Pronsky, who played at Howler's about nine days ago (not this past Thursday, but the previous one). She's a singer and guitarist from New York who knows Greg Hoy, a Pittsburgh ex-pat who lived in NYC until very recently when he moved to Boulder for work. Rebecca is one of the few musicians I've met from New York who was actually born there. She was raised in Brooklyn which was a place to fear during her youth - as she tells it - which is ironic considering it's the hipster mecca of the world now.

But that which doesn't kill you makes your act stronger, and Ms. Pronsky is as funny a storyteller as she is a great songwriter and singer. I have a soft spot for people who are good with the between-song shtick, and she had it down, telling stories about a song winding up in a Polish soap opera, what her mother had to say about that, etc.

Even though her "band" consisted of her and guitarist Rich Bennett, the two of them filled the room up with their sound. Rich is a master of high lonely twangs on the guitar, placing slides or lead melodies in just the right place. Coupled with Rebecca's strong voice and steady acoustic guitar, they put on a really good set.

Locals Emily Rodgers and Pete Bush & the Hoi Polloi played before and after Pronsky, respectively. I caught a few of Emily's songs which were fairly epic in length but pretty spellbinding too. Bush's trio was pretty intense and included my old pal Jesse Prentiss on upright bass. I only heard them with half an ear but plan on checking them out at length sometime soon.

Just saw that Rebecca used a quote from my City Paper preview on her list of press pull quotes. Hubba hubba!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Johnny Mathis and his impact on the world. And me

"Strange isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

Clarence the Angel says that to George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life and I believe it's in one of my favorite moments in the film: There's a closeup of George (Jimmy Stewart) and his face isn't centered in the shot. There's a look of horror on his face because he's finally realizing that he is seeing Bedford Falls as it would've been without him.

I've been thinking about Clarence's comment today in reference to both Gene Ludwig (see previous entry) and about Johnny Mathis, who I saw last week at Heinz Hall. Where would the world be if Mathis had decided that being a singer with a fleeting thing and that he would be much better off participating in the Olympics? No one would've heard that vibrato, "Misty" wouldn't've been as big a hit, numerous couples might not have fallen in love........ I'm overthinking the idea but it is kind of mind boggling if you think about it.

Last week, I went to Heinz Hall with my fellow Love Letters bandmate Erin and our friend Sandi to see Mr. M do his stuff. And let me tell you, he had me by the second syllable. He opened with "When I Fall in Love" which included the opening verse, which is when I knew he still had it. That vibrato, that impeccable phrasing and execution were all still there.

He didn't talk too much between songs and when he did, it seemed like his speaking voice betrayed his 74 years, and didn't sound quite as rich. So he might've been saving its strength for the music. The set really didn't disappoint. A Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer medley including "Charade," "The Days of Wine and Roses" and - of course - "Moon River." He pulled out "Wild Is the Wind," "Misty" (in the middle of the set, surprisingly, not as an encore) and "Gina" which I swear would've made anyone with that name swoon.

I take it back -there was one disappointment. I really wanted to hear "When Sunny Gets Blue," which has an amazingly beautiful set of chord changes. It is a deep cut, sort of, so I can understand why it was skipped. Sandi also made a point after the show that I didn't think about: he didn't do "Wonderful Wonderful." Oh well. I was okay without that one

Some casual readers might be surprised that I'm so into Johnny Mathis, since my tastes usually fall on the other end of the musical spectrum. But Mathis is one of the last of those consummate entertainers from a bygone era. Besides Tony Bennett (who, I'm sorry to say, is starting to lose his voice) there aren't any of these crooners left - except maybe Canonsburg's own Bobby Vinton. But I would bet that Vinton's set plays into a lounge act that caters to an audience in Branson - i.e. predictable, scripted etc. Johnny didn't do that. He really seemed to be into each individual song. Plus when he brought out his guitar player for a spotlight moment, he talked him up and didn't realize until a song later that he forgot to mention the guy's name, proving that this wasn't a show where every last step was choreographed.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra accompanied him and sounded great. But on the predictability scale, their opening set stuck with a lot of tried and true tunes that the audience would know like "The William Tell Overture" and "Hoedown" by Aaron Copland.

In closing, I for one am glad Johnny Mathis made the career choice that he did. Thank you, Mr. M. And Gene Ludwig, again I thank you too.

A Fug and an Organ Man

Playing right now: Lee Konitz New Quartet - Live at the Village Vanguard (Enja)

There's a lot to report from the last week, but right at the moment time doesn't allow, so I'll cut to the chase - two more deaths of unique individuals.

First on Tuesday came news that Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs passed away a day earlier. He considered himself "the world's oldest rock star," since he was well into his 40s by the time he started the Fugs. He had already established himself as a poet and Lower East Side fixture by then, a role he continued probably until his last days. He had the demeanor of both a bohemian wild cat and a warm Jewish grandfather, of which he was probably both.

I met Tuli in 1989 at the CMJ Music Marathon. He was in the audience at a panel discussion where Kramer was one of the panelists. Shimmy-Disc was getting ready to put out Tuli's first album in decades. He offered me some simple but effective advice about continuing to publish a fanzine - which could probably be boiled down to "write what you feel - don't fight the feeling - keep doing it." He looked a little scruffy, but upstairs he had it all together.

I deeply regret not having seen Gene Ludwig play more often. He was truly a master of the B-3. He had a deep, deep sense of swing and knew how to make that 400-pound beast move as lightly as an alto. Maybe it's time to stock up on Gene Ludwig albums in the collection.

The Post-Gazette obit said that he flipped a coin to decide whether he was going to be a full-time musician or a civil engineer. Guess which one out. And think - as I always like to point out - where we'd be if he had gone with civil engineering. One person's decision can affect a lot more people than they realize, directly or indirectly.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Kahil El'Zabar & Hamiet Bluiett Lift the Bandstand

It was pretty cool to walk up the steps into the stage area of the Thunderbird Cafe and see it filled with people there to see the Kahil El'Zabar/Hamiet Bluiett Ritual Trio. There might only be about 20 tables total on both the floor and the upper level by the second bar. But typically, shows like this - avant garde/small scale/call it what you like jazz shows - in Pittsburgh don't typically attract that much of a crowd. I can recall a Steve Swell show a few years ago where I was the only person in the audience right as the set was about to start.

But anyway, it was a good start to the first of a four-part concert series. The Thoth Trio opened the show with a mood that made up for the long gaps between their shows. Ben Opie (tenor and alto saxophones), Paul Thompson (bass) and Dave Throckmorton (drums) each have numerous other projects going on, and Thoth as it is doesn't get to play a lot of gigs. The highlights included: "Ammonium" where a bluesy bass line gets caught up with a sax melody that's like a sideways drunk "Jitterbug Waltz"; Thelonious Monk's rarely heard "We See," which moved away from its Monkism but was a treat since you never heard a tenor player outside of Charlie Rouse or Frank Foster playing it; and a lengthy piece that I think was "Nocturnal" in which Opie ran shot up the register of his horn, running right off the rails of what his horn could blow, and Throckmorton shows how time can be so elastic, pulled back and held tight for dramatic impact and then released. I swear that guy could walk out of a room with playing the beat with his sticks, say hi to a few people he knew, get a drink of water, check his messages and walk back in the room without diverging from the tempo.

Kahil El'Zabar started the Ritual Trio's set with the same kind of intensity and focus. For 15 minutes, he sustained a tempo and groove on the kalimba, tapping his right foot (on which he wore bells) and vocalized along with serious spirit in his voice. The band didn't introduce themselves, they just took the stage, did some soundcheck tweaks and then El'Zabar got into it. Hidden behind shades (which came off after that tune), he had us in the palm of his hands.

Last year, when El'Zabar and Bluiett came to town, it was just the two of them, but this time Junius Paul was along on bass, which helped to open up the songs. While the kalimba set the groove and Bluiett sometimes vamped along with him, Paul often broke into solos or ideas that spun off the grooves. Many of the songs were fairly straight vamps, but that left a lot of room for funky stuff to be added, for some baritone wails to go in, and for any and all of the musicians to sing or moan along. One time when Bluiett was playing flute, El'Zabar's growls mixed with the woodwind and it sounded like Rahsaan Roland Kirk was blowing the instrument.

When El'Zabar moved to the trap kit, he sometimes made faces that were a lot like Throckmorton. (For those out-of-towners, Dave often makes faces like he has a lemon wedge between his cheek and gum - a real sour puss.) He bashed away at the crash cymbal so loudly, I had to cover my ear a couple times.

When I think of Hamiet Bluiett, I think of the baritone sax in all its commanding presence; the kind of instrument and person you don't mess with. And I've seen him close to half a dozen times in the last 25 years. So it was a dose of reality seeing this gentleman onstage who looked like someone's grandfather. Don't get me wrong, the man is still mighty on that horn - and he let fly one of the most spirited vocal yells of the night during one of the other songs. But the recent passing of Fred Anderson was another sad reminder of the humanity of these artists and I thought of that several times last night while looking at Mr. B. I hope he keeps going and I hope traveling by van to club dates isn't too much for him.

When we were leaving, we walked past the van where the trio was loading up, and Hamiet was talking, presumably about the set and the spirit that was on the stage. It was good to hear that and I thanked him for a great show. And then I thanked him for everything. If I had said more, it might sounded maudlin or awkward, so I stopped there. In talking about it with my friend Lena on the ride home, I realized what I really thinking: I sincerely hope that musicians like that - who can get completely whipped up in what they're doing and ride that wave of bliss - know that they're appreciated while they're here.

That show was a perfect example of lifting the bandstand - playing a groove for 10 to 15 minutes, having it stay alive during that time, having the drummer walk through the audience and get us to clap along (even those who don't usually feel like it) and have it feel like this is what we're here for - to enjoy this music. It was a great time.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Summer Jazz Mondays

Now I'm a bit of a Shanley-come-lately on this, but I went to Paul's CDs trying to buy tickets for the Kahil El-Zabar & Hamiet Bluiett show yesterday only to discover that the show is the first in a four-week series of shows at the Thunderbird Cafe. This first show happens on Monday, July 8. It's $15 in advance, $20 day of show. (And you can't get the tickets at Paul's. You have to go to The Thoth Trio is supposed to open.

Next Monday, contrary to what I blogged about last week (which has since been corrected) William Hooker will be there, with Matta Gawa. $10-$12.

On July 26, I am really stoked because Aram Shelton is coming. I reviewed his album on January 2 this year. He's part of that extended family of Chicago jazz guys that includes Josh Berman and Jason Adasiewicz. David Bernabo and Daryl Fleming open the show.

On August 2, the Ernest Dawkins New Horizons Trio plays, with Lee Robinson & Ed Tarzia opening. $15-$20.

Should be a good time. If everyone who read this blog went to those shows, I'd........ be really happy.

Fred Anderson, thanks, wherever you are

It was just a few weeks ago that I mourned the loss of Bill Dixon and here I am again writing about the death of another jazz titan - tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson. And when I say "titan" I mean the definition of the term.

When I was reading the Post-Gazette this morning, something told me to take a lot at the obituaries. That's where I saw that Anderson had passed away. But my eyes must've glazed over the death date, because I had no idea that he died on June 24. I was under the impression it happened this week and it wasn't until I read the article I've linked here that I was found out.

When I reviewed Fred's trio album on Engine last year (see entry on July 26, 2009), there was a moment when I opined that he should live forever because he "has an unending font of ideas." Not only that, a lot of people depended on him, directly or indirectly. His Velvet Lounge served as a home to so many musicians, and there were probably a lot of nights when musicians made plans to record or work together, making plans that might not have otherwise come together. These unspoken catalysts should not be overlooked.

There were also nights when he tended bar at the Velvet and played a set. You're not going to find many musicians with that sort of work ethic. It makes you wonder a) what most of today's jazz musicians will be doing when they're 81 years old and b) whether anyone have that type of tenacity to keep an operation going, without being either a victim or a follower of the almighty dollar.

Don't know about Fred Anderson? Check out this fine piece that Kurt Gottschalk wrote for All About Jazz:

Then buy a handful of CDs by him.

Thanks, Fred. You were a walking inspiration.