Saturday, December 31, 2011

CD Review: Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet - Apparent Distance

Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet
Apparent Distance
(Firehouse 12)

Taylor Ho Bynum plays with a sharp clarity which indicates that he knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. Even when he's rapidly spraying notes, somewhat reminiscent of Donald Ayler, he tongues some of the notes instead of merely letting his fingers run wild on his cornet valves as he blows. It indicates this isn't just random energy gone wild. A master of extended technique on his horn, he emits some incredible intervallic leaps in a fast blow, deceptively making it sound like a high harmonic that can naturally be felt on the horn.

Apparent Distance came together through from a 2010 New Jazz Works grant from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Bynum states in the liner notes that he wanted to blur the lines between composition and improvisation and "upend listeners' expectations in other ways: circular melodies without beginnings or ends... transitions that are simultaneously jarring and organic." Considering his extensive performance career, not to mention his affiliation with Anthony Braxton (Bynum serves as president of the saxophonist's Tri-Centric Foundation) anyone familiar with the cornetist should probably come to expect such vision from him. And this music delivers it, wrapping such adventure in an approach that still manages to swing hard.

"Shift" opens with a couple minutes of unaccompanied Bynum, almost serving as an introduction to his cornet approach, sounding puckish and bright, along with some smears and squirts. It becomes more of a chamber ballad when Jim Hobbs (alto saxophone) and Bill Lowe (bass trombone, and later tuba) join in after a few minutes. Along with their wildest moments, it shows the sextet can be lyrical.

The piece is considered a four-part suite but each section has several different movements of its own. "Strike" follows "Shift" immediately, with Ken Filiano hitting a groovy vamp that adds an extra beat with each repetition, and then following it by subtracting it in the next series of riffs. Hobbs blows in the upper register while Mary Halvorson bangs out chords that threaten the foundation of the riff, eventually turning into interstellar space noise. This breakdown turns the presentation over to Lowe, who whips out the tuba, growling as he drones, methodically. When the group returns with some gentle but jarring intervals, Filiano bows his bass in the upper register like a cello.

The 20-minute "Source" is a virtual suite-within-in-a-suite, and it begins with one of Halvorson's strongest solos yet. In a lot of her work, she uses some sort of effect pedal that bends the pitch, which as great as it sounds, can become pretty similar each time. Here, she manages to blend that effect in with her mutant fretwork in such a manner that sounds unprecedented. Hobbs follows her with another wailing solo that could serve as a textbook lesson on how to play free jazz with passion. It makes me want to hear more from this guy.

"Layer" also crams a lot into the confines of nine minutes, although "crams" might be the wrong word because like everything else on the album, nothing comes across as excessive or overstuffed. This music has plenty of room to breathe freely. Bynum gets back in the spotlight here, at one point shifting from high scrapes down to clear bass notes in a matter of seconds. Gradually the sextet begins playing what sounds like a funeral procession, complemented by alto squonks, frenzied bass bowing and - in the final moments - fuzzed out power chords from Halvorson.

The lines that Bynum says he wanted to blur don't actually seem that blurry to anyone who enjoys music like this. But that only goes to show that composer and ensemble were successful with the execution of this suite. It's an amazing work by an amazing group of players.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

CD Review: Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid/Mats Gustafsson - Live at the South Bank

Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid/Mats Gustafsson
Live at the South Bank
(Smalltown Superjazzz)

Maybe you just had to be there.

The unlikely union of British electronic musician Kieran Hebden and American jazz drummer Steve Reid was already four years underway when they teamed up with Swedish free saxophonist Mats Gustafsson at the Meltdown Festival in London, an event curated by Ornette Coleman. A former member of Fridge, Hebden has been working under the name Four Tet, doing remixes and working with the likes of Thom Yorke when he met Reid. His partner's resume includes Miles Davis' Tutu album and extends back to the soul-jazz Legendary Master Brotherhood and, prior to dates with Sun Ra and Frank Wright, begins with the house band at the Apollo Theater. He died in 2010, less than a year after this concert, from throat cancer.

From the way the two musicians talked about each other, they felt a kinship that bridged the gap between their ages (Hebden was 33 years younger than Reid.) Reid went so far as to call the event a "special relationship, like Miles and Coltrane, or Dizzy and Bird." It's nice to hear about such a strong bond, but that unfortunately doesn't come across in the music.

The group didn't lay any claim to being a jazz unit. They played free improvisation group, open to wherever the sound took them. But Hebden's contributions don't sound like much more than samples or loops, and most of the time, none of them last longer than a few beats so they get repetitive quickly. "Morning Prayer" begins hopefully with a swelling chord but never really expands beyond that idea, aside from a few noises that drop in on top. Reid doesn't really forego tempo for free splatter. He straddles fills and groovy accents. Clearly he was an aggressive player but the mix flattens the impact. It sounds like it was all recorded overhead, making his performance sound more like a series of rolls on the rack toms and cymbals splashes, all echoing behind Hebden.

Gustafsson allegedly got so caught up in what they were playing that he didn't join in for nearly 20 minutes. When his baritone sax finally makes its entrance, it adds some more dimension to the texture. But no one really seems to be responding to his co-conspirators, at least not in an audible manner. Gustafsson blows in the Ayler/Brotzmann tradition of growling overtones, which can get a little much on its own. In "25th Street" he just blows the mouthpiece while an organ riff repeats without regard for the drums, and everything just gets grating.

The final track of the two-disc set, "The Sun Never Stops," reveals a little more of a connection. Hebden's keyboard sounds come from early '80s new wave, which sounds oddly intriguing in the setting. They gradually collapse into noise, including metallic clatter like cowbells, which may or may not come from Reid. Either way, the energy is contagious, with Gustafsson's guttural blowing generating excitement onstage and off. But it arrives after too long of a journey to fully appreciate that final destination, cohesive as it is.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

CD Review: Jason Stein Quartet - The Story This Time

Jason Stein Quartet
The Story This Time

It's been a good 14 months for Jason Stein. Last November, he released Three Kinds of Happiness with his trio Locksmith Isidore (go here for a review of it) and less than a year later this fine release hit the streets.

Stein plays bass clarinet exclusively, a rarity (maybe a first) in jazz, and he continues to develop his own identity on the instrument, incorporating the past accomplishments on the big stick, and using them in a way that's highly original. Taking that originality a step further, he has tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson along as his frontline foil. Jackson is a great choice on the basis of his musicianship, but the combined sound of the two reeds gives the music a snaky quality. Bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly round out this A-list of Chicago adventurers.

The Story This Time is divided pretty evenly between Stein originals and interpretations of others. The latter category presents a good idea of the bass clarinetist's bold thought process: While many musicians think nothing of playing three Monk tunes on an album, only a certain breed would choose "Skippy," "Gallop's Gallop" and "Work," three of his more obscure and, in at least one case, challenging pieces. For "Work," Jackson switches to contrabass clarinet, adding more of a low-end gait to the piece, making it even more playful. Abrams plays like a third voice in this track too, bowing along side the horns.

The other covers come from the Lennie Tristano lineage, with one tune each by the great pianist, and his proteges Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. Marsh's "Background Music" speeds along sounding like vintage Ornette Coleman with this arrangement. Stein and Jackson almost sound like they have trouble keeping up with the tempo, though that is not a criticism. Konitz's "Palo Alto" begins with some very un-Konitz like honks and squawks from the horns before they settle into the theme. "Lennie Bird" doesn't leave a lot of room for horn players to breath between phrases, but it energizes these two, who solo simultaneously for three concise minutes.

The quartet stretches out in "Laced Case," Stein's nine-minute tribute to Steve Lacy, which is marked by tempo accelerations and open sections where the composer runs wild all over his instrument, moving from rumbles to simulated feedback. "Little Big Horse" could pass for a hard bop classic, with its easy going line and off-beat accents, and flow of ideas from the horns. Jackson enters during Stein's solo to add some color the bass clarinet, and the transition to his own solo feels impeccable. For "Hoke's Dream" the horns plays a series of long toned themes, while Rosaly gently moves freely around his kit. Stein begins in kind, eventually escalating his feeling to keep the excitement going. As wild as he gets, he never forsakes the melodic voice in favor of visceral shrieks, though.

With its combination of challenging covers and strong original works, The Story This Time is definitely one of the year's best releases.

Honoring Sonny Rollins, missing Sam Rivers

Last night, Sonny Rollins was honored on the Kennedy Center Awards show. Just the thought of that is pretty exciting. Naturally I think ol' Newk is more than deserving of the honor, and it's good to know that others feel the same way.

I love Sonny, as a musician and as a human being. He was one of the first interviews I did as an intern at InPittsburgh and we talked for about an hour. A few years later, he wasn't doing interviews around the time of his appearance at the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival. So I faxed him some questions. Not only did he answer back a day later, his answers were very thoughtful and looked great in print.

Bill Cosby did the "induction" speech for Sonny, and while I feel like Cos has reached the point in his life where his shtick comes across more like a rambling old man (and the whole grumpy old guy act just isn't funny), he ended on a note of sincerity that was moving in its directness. The speech focused on how Cos traveled around the world, and in remote places like a dentist's office in Greece and a rickshaw in Japan, he heard Sonny Rollins' music - making it universal. "And tonight, we say, Sonny - welcome home." Something about those last two words carried a lot of weight.

For the musical part, Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane played with Christian McBride and a drummer who I can't remember. Then across the stage, out came Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall and Jack DeJohnette, along with Roy Hargrove, Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath. (McBride put together the film in between Cos and the performance and he probably assembled the band, which explains why there were two drummers but only one bassist.) It was brief and concise but good.

Much to my surprise, there was no sign of Wynton Marsalis.

Right before the show started, I went onto Facebook and found out that Sam Rivers died the day after Christmas. That hurt. Maybe it shouldn't, maybe it was a selfish, "now I'll never get to meet him" hurt but nevertheless, it got to me. It's hard enough losing a jazz musician, but losing such a mover and shaker of free jazz, feels even worse. If I didn't have the urge to write a review right now, I'd put on some wild Sam. Maybe I will on the way to work.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The American Song-Poem Christmas: Daddy, Is Santa Really Six Foot Four?

(Note: I wrote this review eight years ago at Pulp, a Pittsburgh alt-weekly for which I served as arts and entertainment editor. Back then, I wanted to give this CD five stars, but our star criteria didn't go up that high. It stopped at four. I stand behind this review all these years later and I'm reprinting here as a salute to what I think is a mandatory holiday release. Much like my original review, I'm publishing this too close to the holidays to generate any sales, but oh well. Maybe the cyberworld can offer a quicker fix than it did back then.)

Various Artists
The American Song-Poem Christmas: Daddy, Is Santa Really Six Foot Four?
(Bar None)

One thing that made vinyl records so enthraling in their heyday was the sheer number of so many weird and unusual recordings - the kind that made listeners wonder who in the Sam Hill believed that such ridiculous ideas deserved to be pressed and unleashed on unsuspecting ears. The dawn of recordable CDs makes it even easier for anyone to clog the market, but burning your own disc is now the equivalent of dubbing cassettes: They often have the basic look of a blank tape, regardless of the sound quality.

A record, on the other hand, brought with it at least some credibility, from the look of the label to the artwork on the cover - even if it came in a plain, white single sleeve. So when budding songwriters around the country received a single with their lyrics put to music, sung and played by some, er, "professional" musicians, it's no wonder they might think they could be the next Neil Diamond or Carole King.

The American Song-Poem Music Archives documents this institution - scam, some some might say - where folks submitted a check along with their preference for the tempo, style and gender of the singer who would immortalize their prose. After the music was whipped up, a not-quite-crack team of musicians would bang it out, usually in one take that ended with a fade-out so the players wouldn't have to worry about a clean ending.

The holiday season is perfect fodder for such lyical inspiration, with many yokels figuring they could write the next "White Christmas" or "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." This compilation, the second culled from the the Song-Poem archives, documents 21 such exercises. There's no reason this slice of Americana deserves any less than four stars, despite the fact that most of the lyrics are horrible. They're still catchy.

Besides, if we have to get bombarded each year with Steve and Eydie's insipid version of "Sleigh Ride" or Lou Monte's "Dominick the Donkey (The Italian Christmas Donkey)," there's no reason why catchy hokum like "Christmas Treat, Peppermint" can't fit right in. Sung by the studio gals under the name the Sisterhood, it sounds like something straight off the Lawrence Welk show. On the comp's title cut, Saint Nick becomes Mom's back door man, and singer Kay Brown sings it with all the subtlety of a high school choir soprano ripping through "Whatever Lola Wants." In other words, all the right pitches and none of the appropriate conviction - which is what makes this disc so entertaining.

Forget "so-bad-it's-good" ideology, just revel in the fact that this exists. The quaintness of tracks like "The New Year Song" or "Snowbows" (first line: "I know you've all seen rainbows...") evokes visions of lyricists resembling the woman in Far Side cartoons or Tex and Edna Boyle from SCTV. Even "The Rocking Disco Santa Claus," another Sisterhood monstrosity, sounds less like the handiwork of Giorgio Moroder wannabe than a dad - in this case, one William Dibble - in a desperate attempt at hipness. If you think about it hard enough, the Sisterhood starts to sound like Silver Convention rather than the Lennon Sisters.

These tracks all deserve to be holiday perennials, because no matter how bad they are, they're still a better listen that, say, the Manheim Steamroller and Celine Dion holiday bombast.

(Afterthought - I don't think I've heard Steve & Eydie's aforementioned "Sleigh Ride" anywhere since I wrote this review. And I've come to a point where I'd like to. Irony.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

It's nice to be appreciated

Playing right now: The Creeping Nobodies - Augus & Auspices

Thursday night was Customer Appreciation Night at Mind Cure, the record store around the corner from my house. After being home all day with a sick child, I was granted a brief reprieve from the kid and headed over to take advantage of the appreciation. (I stopped at Lili, the coffeeshop downstairs first, for a post-dinner joe.)

There was pizza and beer, but I was full from dinner so I started perusing the racks. It had been a few weeks since I was in there and there always seems to be some new stuff worth checking out, or else there's a rack that I missed the last time, since my attention span ran out.

I picked up this Creeping Nobodies album there. I've seen them twice in Pittsburgh (though it's been about seven years since their last visit) and have two of their CDs. This is might be the most consistent one, even though it appears to be a compilation of stuff from split EPs. And it really has a Sonic Youth-via-Thinking Fellers thing going on.

I also picked up a Neko Case album I'd never seen or heard of before, Canadian Amp, which is sort of a mini-LP with a number of cover tunes. While thumbing through the jazz I started thinking that it'd be cool to find another Von Freeman album, because he's a great Chicago tenor player... and lo and behold I came across an album on Muse by him and Willis Jackson. It's kind of split between the two of them, from a live concert, with standards and a some blues blowing vehicles, but maybe it'll grow on me.

While paying for the records, Mike asked if I was sure I didn't want a beer. I'm not a beer drinker, so I declined. Then he offered me a shot of bourbon. To that, I couldn't say no. I left feeling like I had just dislodged the remains of my cold, and I also felt glad to live in a neighborhood with a vinyl store, a coffeeshop and evening events like this.

I DO have reviews I want to write for the blog, but between illness in the family and change in temperature outside, I haven't had the motivation. Maybe tomorrow, which is my last day off before Christmas Eve.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

LP Review - Tony Jones, Kenny Wollesen & Charles Burnham - Pitch, Rhythm & Conciousness

Tony Jones - Kenny Wollesen - Charles Burnham
Pitch, Rhythm and Consciousness

This might be the album that can introduce straight ahead jazz fans to free improvisation. Whereas most free music can scare greenhorns away with its aggresive energy and extended technique, Pitch, Rhythm and Consciousness sounds subdued, bringing together gentle, lyrical ideas with the loose approach to group interaction. It's banded into nine individual tracks but it flows like one continuous piece, where a few written ideas launch the trio and bring them back together at certain times to make sure things remain cohesive. Although there are moments when things sound extremely spare and open, the trio typically keeps a mood flowing so that the listener's mind won't wander.

Tenor saxophonist Tony Jones, who acts as a de facto leader, hails from Berkeley where he grew up playing with trumpeter Steven Bernstein, saxophonist Jessica Fuchs (now his wife Jessica Jones) and multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum, the latter who lead the group Hieroglyphics Ensemble, which added "New York" to their name after relocating there in the '90s. (The group played on Don Cherry's Multikulti album in 1990.)

Burnham might be best known for his performance on James Blood Ulmer's trio album Odyssey, but he has also worked with Henry Threadgill and Cassandra Wilson, among others. Wollesen, another Bay Area resident, played with Mrs. Jones when he was younger, and has become pretty ubiquitous due to work everyone from Bill Frisell and Myra Melford to Tom Waits and David Byrne.

Wollesen's contributions to this album are the icing on the cake, but it's worth starting at that point and working backwards. He skips a traditional trap kit, and plays nothing but bells, gongs and shakers throughout the album. Without any attempt to either keep pulse or keep away from it, Wollesen adds to the texture of the music, providing shape and direction to the sounds his co-conspirators create. There are moments when he isn't heard prominently, but even then his presence can be felt.

Jones maintains a strong lyrical stance throughout the album, staying in a warm, thoughful mood rather than exploring extreme dynamics of his instrument. Only two of the tracks have songwriting credit (his) and it's clear these are both preconceived themes that he brought to the table. "Dear Toy" opens the set with a minor ballad, where he concentrates on the middle register after following a Burnham solo with some long tones.

Burnham's playing brings up some of the most intriguing moments of the album. While he does bow gracefully, he also plucks his instrument's strings, making it sound like a koto or some other pungent Asian instrument. It makes a great introduction to "Billie," where Jones comes in with a mournful melody that evokes a stretched-out "You Don't Know What Love Is" (I feel like I hear this earlier in the set too). If they named the piece for the singer who spelled her name that way, they certainly good the mood right. In "Jessie," Burnham sounds like he's playing a banjo. This track is the only one, however, that stays a little too spare. Wollesen's gongs move to the forefront, over the "banjo" notes and soft tenor pedal points, but no one steps up to solo. But like all the tracks on the album, it doesn't overstay its welcome. (One track lasts just over seven minutes, the rest average three to five minutes.)

There's one other interesting quality to Pitch, Rhythm and Consciousness that could have been the opening statement had I not wanted to put the music itself up front: Tactile copies of the album are available only on vinyl, with digital downloads or MP3s available too. Last year around this time, on this blog, I opined that Nels Cline's Dirty Baby should be purchased not only because it was a great album but to give Cryptogramophone positive reinforcement for having the guts to release a double-CD set with two elaborate booklets at a time when any release is a financial risk.

The same should be said for Tony Jones. It's hard enough playing adventurous, bold music and releasing it on compact discs. But putting it out on vinyl shows a true commitment to your craft and to the people who influenced you (I think it's safe to say that Jones' formative years of music listening happened when vinyl was in its prime). The people who still buy vinyl are the ones who love music, which of course is a select group. Hopefully enough of them will check this release out because they won't be disappointed. Then they can play it for their friends who are scared of free jazz, and they will open their ears more and suddenly the whole of avant garde jazz will have a bigger fan base!, not really. I'm not that naive and hopeful. But this is a great album and a great format in which to hear it.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Can't talk now. Listening

Playing right now: Cylinder - s/t (Clean Feed)
I got home tonight and a package from Clean Feed was waiting for me. Ha cha! I got two albums that feature Aram Shelton, but this one is more like a co-operative (I'm tempted to, but won't, use that word ascribed to bands like Blind Faith to describe Cylinder). Along with Shelton (alto, b-flat and bass clarinets), it includes Darren Johnston (trumpet), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass) and Kjell Nordeson (drums).

The other disc is by Arrive - Shelton, Jason Adasiewicz, Jason Roebke and Tim Daisy.

Too busy listening, but just wanted to make a request. It looks like the hits to this blog are starting to come more from people looking to actually check out the reviews, and not so much spammers or people who just hit "Next blog" while viewing. If you're checking out the blog, please stop to say hi, or leave a comment or something. It'd be cool to know what people think. And to see if the googlebot person in Mountain View is a. a real person and b. someone interested in the music or someone just doing their job.

7" review: Lovin' Spoonful - Alley Oop / Night Owl Blues

Lovin' Spoonful
Alley Oop/ Night Owl Blues

I had no idea that Black Friday was also another Record Store Day. Among the things released and available on that day, Sundazed released this - an outtake from Lovin' Spoonful's first album (available on the reissue of it) and an extended version of the closing track of the record.

Back around the time I posted an entry that appreciated the band's Everything Playing album, I considered ordering their debut, Do You Believe in Magic. It's the only album of theirs that I don't own and I really wanted to hear "Night Owl Blues." The opening seconds of that song are really light years from the band's lighter fare, such as that album's title track (though I will say the backing track of that song has a lot of drive). John Sebastian blows an extremely dirty harp intro that gets especially raunchy against Zal Yanovsky's echoey guitar chords. These weren't any ordinary white kids copping the style. This is genuine.

I haven't heard the song since I sold my two-fer Kama Sutra Best Of album about two decades ago. It wasn't a tragic loss, but something I would enjoy revisiting. So when I saw that was on this single, I was sold. Plus Zal's guitar solo doesn't fade out after three minutes. It goes for another chorus or two before Sebastian comes in, Joe Butler takes things into double time for a few bars and the whole thing wraps up neatly.

"Alley Oop" is indeed the novelty song originally done by the Hollywood Argyles. The band turns it into something of a garage rave-up, at least as far as the tempo goes, which gives it a nice bump, along with vocals by Zal.

At $8, these Record Store singles can be a little steep, but considering I would've paid more for a CD reissue that I'd probably set aside after a spin or two, this was a good investment.

Love Letters at Gooski's - a recap

Over the past couple of years, gigs have turned into dicey events for me and my psyche. The smallest thing can set me off, from a lack of caffeine prior to a show to the size of the audience to the amount of attention the audience pays to us. At the same time, if five people come to a show that I didn't expect, and/or if a few members of the audience laugh at our banter or whoop their heads off between songs, that can be all I need to have a great time.

I'm saying this because the planets aligned Saturday night at Gooski's. Arrival was easy (another factor in my mood). By 10:00, the bar was jammed with people, both in the back room where the bands play, and up front.

City Steps went on first, not too long after a constable showed up and served their frontman with papers. It sucks that he's getting sued, but I was almost relived that he wasn't carted out of there in cuffs. (Don't laugh - it's happened at Gooski's before, albeit at the end of the night as a set was winding down.) They really have a Belle & Sebastian vibe going on, but that could be because Michael happens to write catchy songs that follow the same sort of melodic path as that Scottish act. Having Bill and Kate, formerly of the Hi-Frequencies, in the band and adding a '60s vibe doesn't hurt either. They played for almost exactly 30 minutes, which was a little brief for me. Always leave them wanting more, I guess. And considering that I was worried about them going on at 10:30 rather than earlier, it meant things were right on time.

Neighbours were next, all tight Mod-pop in their sweaters. Keyboardist/singer Mike (there was a pattern here) had a Steelers sweater on, but it was still kind of in keeping with the theme. It's great hearing a band that's so incredibly tight, and clearly listening to each other to make sure things sound so cohesive. The sound was a little muddy, but it didn't matter. It felt great.

Then we Love Letters went on. Earlier in the evening, my paranoid side almost got the best of me, worrying that everyone except our close friends would leave before we got on. Not the case. In fact at least one friend from work showed up after checking out the Beagle Brothers at their show about five minutes away, at Sonny's. We were pretty well rehearsed for this show, and I think it gave us confidence. Sure there were a few flubs here and there, but when you're playing a song that alternates between 5/4 and 6/8, it's impressive enough that you attempt it. Especially when it's a deep cut Monkees song ("As We Go Along"). Erin, our drummer, sings the tune, which requires a good set of pipes, and she definitely has them. Since drums are really minor in the song, she came out front to sing it and only went back for the coda, which kicks it up to a dramatic level.

My other setback with playing last is that I try not to drink, or not drink too much, before we play because my hooch of choice kills what little vocal range I have. I was good and had just one before we started. And to lube the vocal chords a bit, I bought a shot of Irish whiskey before we went on. AND I SIPPED IT. Say what you like, but I enjoy sipping shots because you can appreciate them that way. I learned that from my friend Rob, who came out for the show, and heard us do one of his songs.

So good times, good set list, good bands. Now I'm yearning to do it again.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Have plans for tonight?

In case anyone reading this is in Pittsburgh, looking for something to do, my band the Love Letters are playing at Gooski's tonight, on Brereton Street in Polish Hill. City Steps are opening, followed by Neighbours and then us.

Good times. Be there.

CD Review: Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone - Departure of Reason

Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone
Departure of Reason
(Thirsty Ear)

Mary Halvorson (guitar) and Jessica Pavone (viola) have played together in Anthony Braxton's 12+1tet and the Thirteenth Assembly, and they've each developed respectable careers on their own, in a variety of settings. Halvorson has been one of the most talked about modern guitarists in the past year or two, thanks in part to her trio and quintet albums. Among numerous other projects as a co-leader or supporting member, she also plays in People, a sort of free rock duo with drummer Kevin Shea. Pavone co-leads the groups Army of Strangers and the Pavones, and has received funding to compose several extended compositions, including the album Songs of Synastry and Solitude (which, just to prove the variety of influences here, was inspired by a Leonard Cohen album).

If the duo had been around in the early '90s, it's easy to imagine them as a fixture on the burgeoning Knitting Factory scene, when the club's original locale was releasing compilations and booking acts that combined uninhibited improvisation with music that drew on art rock or folk or something hard to peel apart with words, due to the blending of it. (It was usually summarized as "Downtown New York.") This is especially true when the two of them sing (on three of the 10 tracks), and their sullen voices are matched by equally obtuse lyrics. "The Object of Desire," regularly gets hung up mid-thought: "In the city city city city city/of events... it's the object object object object object/sometime before then." The effect creates intrigue more than abrasion, and makes them sound closer to Mary Timony or Rasputina's Melora Creager if they hung around with the college improv crowd.

Some of the songs on Departure of Reason (the fourth Halvorson/Pavone album and second for Thirsty Ear) sound like madrigals. Halvorson sets up a 2/2 riff, hitting a low chord and answering with a high one (and at times she does really smack the strings on her big hollowbody gitbox) and the viola plays a simple melody with an equally brawny tone ("That Other Thing").

The sparse sound of the duo occasionally would benefit from the addition of more instruments to fill in the surroundings, especially when they're both playing similar parts. But Halvorson and Pavone never like to stick with one mood for too long and many of the songs naturally flow into new movements, which sometimes require a check of the track listing to see if a new song has started. "New October" offers one of the best examples of this, starting with a minor folk melody, gradually bringing in ugly, atonal chords behind it and turning into a free metal freakout where Pavone sounds like she too is banging away on six strings. Halvorson regularly steps on her effect that bends notes to the extent that they sound like they're coming from a warped guitar (which presumably is too extreme to come from a simple whammy bar). The sound can be pretty similar with each use, and it detracted a little from her otherwise excellent Saturn Sings album from last year. But now she seems to have advanced her use of it, distorting it even further to a point where it picks up the sound of her hand, or pick, attacking the strings.

The previous albums by the duo struck something of a balance between their songwriting and improvisational side, making a clear jump from the song structures to the free skronk. This time, the transition feels more seamless, like their ability to blend the two has reached a new level of precision. It's jarring, but interesting, music.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Holiday weekend at Gooski's

Playing right now: Amir ElSaffar Two Rivers Ensemble- Inana (Pi)

I love going to Gooski's on Thanksgiving weekend. It's usually crowded, but the crowd usually includes a bunch of out-of-towners coming back to visit. The turnout is great for anyone playing there on either night. And unlike most people, the smoke doesn't bother me too much. At least not until I put my coat on the next morning.

On Friday night, I dropped by to try and spread the word about the Love Letters show happening there next week (although I didn't have any flyers to hand out) but also to see the Dirty Faces, Brass Chariot and House of Assassins. It's been awhile since I've seen Dirty Faces or House of Assassins, and I've been meaning to see Brass Chariot for awhile.

Once upon a time, the wife and I used to go to Gooski's for Sunday dinner, which usually consisted of wings and provolone sticks, with a pierogie or two switched in for one of the others. I decided to get some provolone to absorb some of the hooch a few drinks into the evening. Little did I know the current variety of provolone sticks are NOT the long skinny variety but the huge muscular ones that look more like those vegetarian field roasts that I saw plenty of last week at work. Or a more apt description is that they look like the scotch eggs from Piper's Pub. I ate three (more than enough) and gave the other two my friend Josh.

That snack came after House of Assasins' set and during Brass Chariot's. HoA is lead by Jason Baldinger, WRCT DJ and Paul's CD employee extraordinaire, and they cranked out a set of raw but right tunes, heavy on the lyrical twists. The lyrics got a little buried, naturally, in the mix, but it made me remember their album from a couple years ago and how the scope of his words made up for any vocal shortcomings he might have. A closing cover of "Turn the Page" was... ah, entertaining. But, brother, if you're going to do that song, remember to end it on "There Iiiiiiiiiiiii go-woh."

I had been listening to Brass Chariot from the other room while eating, admiring how tight and hard they sounded. Sam has been playing guitar for years, long before I came along and started checking out bands, but he fits right in with the next generation cats in this band. And it was great to see him and Ben (bass) standing there in the unlit Gooski's back room. Ben's hair has been a trademark look for years and Sam's mop comes close to the same size and shape. They made the Damned's "Neat Neat Neat" sound like it was their own. Someone commented on how loud they were, but they didn't seem painful to me. Then I realized that the guitars might have been muffled a bit by the power of the drums. But there was plenty of meat and potatoes there.

Crossing the third drink threshold.... provolone settling in, but not feeling like a cinder block, thankfully........ Dirty Faces took the stage in a ball of swagger. Almost didn't recognize guitarist Ernie when he said hi to me earlier, due to the salt and pepper in his hair and on his puss. T Glitter's puss was buried in a sea of long hair, which made me wonder if he had been sitting close to me all night and I didn't realize it. They guys rocked with no inhibitions whatsoever. There was six of 'em onstage, though I don't think I could hear the keyboard at all. The energy never ceased and they seemed to play a good long time, but my eyelids eventually got droopy. Since I had to work the next morning, I cut out before the set was over.

Friday, November 25, 2011

CD Review: Jason Adasiewicz's Sun Rooms - Spacer

Sorry if you're here looking for the review. I'm filing a review with JazzTimes and it wouldn't be cool to have both of these up at the same time, so I pulled it down. Go buy yourself an issue of that magazine and read it there. (The copy with the review is not out yet, but you should still buy one anyway. Keep print media alive!)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

CD Review: The Four Bags - Forth

The Four Bags
(NCM East)

For a band whose instrumentation consists of trombone, clarinet/bass clarinet, guitar and accordion, the Four Bags sound extremely percussive as they start their album in "Wayne Shorter's Tune With All Different Notes." Michael McGinnis slap tongues a beat on his clarinet briefly during the theme to reinforce the tempo but everyone is blowing with such focus that the extra click acts like a nice addition instead of a click track. The piece is tightly arranged with everything in the pocket, so it's designed to groove.

Still, flying without the net sounds pretty impressive. McGinnis and trombonist Brian Drye solo in tandem first, with Drusky sounding especially inventive and light on his feet. Then guitarist Sean Moran and accordionist Jacob Garchik get their chance for parallel solos. The latter gets some great wheezes and backwards sounding notes out of his instrument while Moran wraps up a challenging solo with some pedal effects that turn his axe into a ring modulator.

And that's only the first track. Each member of the group composes, and they also cover electronic duo Air, and compositions by Brazilian and Persian performers. All of the New York-based Bags are active with a number of projects. Drye also leads Bizingas (reviewed here back in January 2011). Garchik has written for the Kronos Quartet and Slavic Soul Party. Moran has done everything from metal to accompanying vocalist Rene Marie. McGinnis has performed in Fela! On Broadway and Anthony Braxton's Trillium E Orchestra.

With all that diversity feeding into their music, the Four Bags change moods rapidly while maintain focus and that continuing knack for tight arrangements that makes their sound expansive. "Run" their Air cover, actually evokes Radiohead to these ears, since Drye's muted trombone evokes the whine in Thom Yorke's voice. McGinnis switches to bass clarinet for "Pope Joy," Moran's death metal spotlight where he switches to baritone guitar which again uses some sound-melting effects. One track later, Drye is demonstrating some lush long tones on trombone in "Comfort Toon," a ballad with some nice Bacharach chords at its center.

"Girias Do Norte," a forro (Northeastern Brazillian dance), is based on a bright folk melody and features the Bags skillfully working with counterpoint over a vamp. In another nod towards smart album programming, they follow that with "The Burning," a slow, pensive Persian composition that gets some Western spice from Moran's dramatic strumming.

Together since 1999, the Four Bags have released two albums prior to Forth. (Yes, they're funny too, as if the song titles and the anagrams on the front cover didn't make it clear.) The time has given them the chance to develop a rather unique style that keeps this album exciting from beginning to end. Hopefully they'll get some Year End list recognition. And maybe I'll try to hunt down the rest of their catalog.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Blogging problems

The previous post was written early this morning, but I didn't get to post it until I got into work just now. (Don't worry, boss, I'm not on the clock yet.)

I upgraded to Internet Explorer 9 yesterday and now I know what I hesitated. For some unexplained reason, I can save drafts of posts but I can't publish them on the blog. Something to do with Javascript. And our new PC is the same way. I hate technology.

If anyone has suggestions or help, please put them in a Reply here. (All I could find in my haste this morning were umpteen "Yeah, I have the problem too" comments.)

Paul Motian - Last Words

File this one under the take-it-anyway-you-want: I was driving home from work last night a little before 6 p.m. I'm pretty sure the clock in the car said 5:53 when turned on the engine (recalled only because of my usual quandary of "do I bother to fish a CD out of my bag to listen to on the 10-minute drive home or just put the radio on....and what's on now?")

Paul Motian's name popped into my head, for no particular reason. A few months ago when Lee Konitz was interviewed in JazzTimes he alluded to the fact that Motian felt like he had said all he needed to say in interviews and that he didn't need to do anymore. Motian seemed like a bit of a curmudgeon, at least as far as interviewees go, too. Or at least he was a tough egg. So it got me wondering what I'd say to him if the chance ever arose for me to talk to ol' Paul. I thought about a Blindfold/Before & After test. Or just asking him, "How do you listen to music? Do you draw a conclusion on the first listen or do you give it several chances?" I suppose all of this came up because I wonder how many jazz musicians try to keep up with what all is out there - people who get buzz and people who deserve buzz. I wonder if his mailbox is flooded on a daily basis with CDs from people hoping to get his approval.

Of course as you already have concluded, or already know if you follow this music, Paul Motian died yesterday at the age of 80. Not only that, he died at 4:52 p.m., a mere 62 minutes or so before I started ruminating about him. Maybe it's a strange coincidence. Maybe his spirit reverberated across the stratosphere as it went on to the next place, and left me thinking about him. Maybe his parting words were, "Ain't gonna happen, man."

He was on original. Nobody played a kit like he did. Here's a good obituary on him if you want to read more.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

CD Review: Travis Laplante - Heart Protector

Travis Laplante
Heart Protector

Once at a Peter Brotzmann show, I ran into a saxophone player whose personal style was more in a straight ahead direction, having come up during the heyday of bop and hard bop. He, obviously, was open to other things since he was there at this show, and I asked between sets what he thought of Brotzmann's music. His reply went something like, "As an apparatus for producing sound, he really has a command of his instrument. His technique is incredible. As far as what he produces, I'm not really sure about that." It was clear he respected the German titan for what he did, because my friend could've said, "It's a bunch of noisy crap, and I'm leaving," but he didn't. (I'm pretty sure he stayed for two sets.)

This encounter came back to me while listening to Heart Protector, the solo album by Travis Laplante, a tenor saxophonist who also plays in the band Little Women and in a trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Solo albums can be intriguing if nothing else because they can make the listener wonder what inspired the soloist. Is the musician following changes they hear in their mind? Is it completely solo? Is it spontaneous? Is s/he lost in their own thoughts? Did you have to be there - "there" being inside their head - to fully appreciate it?

Laplante comes out of the gate impressively, blowing two harmonized tones on the opening title track, and he's clearly producing them simultaneously through his sharp technique. It's not clear at first, but there is melodic structure to what he's playing, as the whole thing repeats. Still, it's long, gruff notes and nothing else so it requires focus. "Five Points" shows a different skill, since he uses circular breathing to blow a torrent of notes that gradually shift in tone with the way he manipulates his fingering. It's barbed in a very Pharoah Sanders kind of way, climaxing after six minutes with 10 low honks from the bottom of the horn, delivered slowly, like someone who can't resist adding to a point they've already made. Although once you realize he's going to keep honking, it gets more entertaining.

At this point, after two of the five tracks, the interest in Heart Protector has more to do with Laplante's chops than his compositions. Which is conflicting because this music is clearly close to him. He wrote these pieces while suffering from a severe case of vertigo that debilitated him for a whole summer. Each one represents his struggle and eventual triumph over the illness.

Of course, I know all of this because of the disc's press release, not because of the music or anything contained in the cover. "The Great Mother" doesn't sound like a triumph over adversity. It sounds like a really good imitation of guitar feedback. Which is good, but... it gets a excessive in its simplicity.

The bits of the concept do come across to some degree in the final track, "The Tear Dam." After all the squonk and squeal, Laplante plays a straight forward, meditative melody, full of pregnant pauses and it ends with a repetitive sense of triumph. He says it makes him feel "emotionally naked" and his no frills delivery conveys that open feeling so the effect is penetrating.

While Heart Protector winds up being something of a mixed experimental bag, Laplante shows a smart sense of economy: the five tracks only last a total of 30 minutes, so he doesn't wear out his welcome.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

CD Review: Nice Guy Trio & Darren Johnston

The Nice Guy Trio
Sidewalks and Alleys/Waking Music

Darren Johnston's Gone to Chicago
The Big Lift

(Porto Franco)

Both of these albums arrived at the beginning of the fall, collectively heralding the work of trumpeter Darren Johnston. They present the San Francisco resident in two different situations, each showing him to be a diverse performer and composer.

Sidewalks and Alleys/Waking Music is actually the Nice Guy Trio's second release. Along with Johnston, the group includes Rob Reich (accordion) and Daniel Fabricant (upright bass). For the two suites on the album, they also add two violins, a viola and cello. There's something wildly evocative about this kind of instrumentation that makes the music seem beg for some cinematic image to accompany it, and that's the case in Reich's five-piece Sidewalks and Alleys. Inspired by "countless hours spent wandering around the streets of cities, particularly San Francisco and New York," it begins with a slow minor waltz that evokes the pensive footsteps of such trips. While the pieces have a very written-through quality, there is room left for some improvisation. No group like this would feel complete without a tango, and for "The Inside Job," Johnston makes sure that it breaks from tradition with a solo renders that begins with some bent notes worthy of Lee Morgan and continues in something of a boppish mode.

Johnston composed the five pieces that make up Waking Music. His writing leans more towards jazz settings than Reich, and although it doesn't have quite the impact of the first set, his five tracks still have plenty to offer. The strings play with little to no vibrato and avoid giving the songs too much of a sweet color. When they do veer towards that end, in "Tiny Gods," they're balanced out by the minor key, a brusk 7/8 time signature and an intro that begins with Johnston blowing some smears and kisses. "Beyond the Paper Garden" has some stormy, heavy riffs from the strings, which may be the composer's way of describing the rough reality that comes with waking up.

As the band name of the other CD indicates, Johnston traveled to the Windy City in the summer of 2010, where he reconnected with compatriots Jeb Bishop (trombone), Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphone), Nate McBride (bass) and Frank Rosaly (drums). They recorded six of the trumpeter's own pieces and two far-flung covers. The session sounds a little loose on first listen, but closer examination reveals a group working with some strong compositions, keeping a free feel while still showing a lot of forward motion.

What comes across in "The Big Lift," which opens the set, is the counterpoint between trumpet and trombone. They play parallel to each other, in a way that offers mutual support. Beneath them, McBride really grooves, even though this is a free tempo. The written section of "Rubber Bullets" amounts to just a few seconds of throat-clearing at either end of the piece, with Bishop and Johnston both blowing flurries of ideas (the latter with McBride again nearly stealing the show with some excellent bow work). This contrasts with "Cut" in which Bishop trades the out-of-breath attack for a vaguely romantic tone.

Johnston's writing, coupled with the approach of his bandmates, gives the album an original sound, which for the most part is not akin to easy comparisons. However the tricky time signature of "Glass Ceiling, Paper Floor" coupled with the instrumentation gives the tune some faint traces of Dave Holland's recent work. It also, being track four, features the first solo by Adasiewicz, who makes his presence known but doesn't overstep his boundaries. All of these, of course, should be considered positive attributes to the album.

To add to the diversity, Johnston chose a rather deep Ornette Coleman piece ("Love Call") and a Duke Ellington classic ("Black and Tan Fantasy") for his interpretations. "Love Call" begins in a very rubato mood and then gives the spotlight over to Adasiewicz, on the instrument that was probably least likely to be heard in a harmolodic mood. "Black and Tan" stays pretty faithful to the original, though it's Bishop who conjurs Bubber Miley with his plunger mute.

This is the part of the review where I tell you to keep an eye out for this guy, and for once there are actual performance dates to plug for each disc, although they're in different cities. (Anyone reading this in either place is encouraged to let me know.)

On November 18: Johnston will host a Big Lift CD release at the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco with a different band: Ben Goldberg (clarinet), Sheldon Brown (tenor sax, bass clarinet), David Ewell (bass) and Hamir Atwal (drums.

On December 2: The Nice Guy Trio will host their CD releaseat the Community Music Center in San Franciso.

On December 18: The Johnston's Gone To Chicago band will perform at the Hungry Brain in Chicago.

So keep an eye on this Johnston guy. And if, by some chance, someone reading this decides to check any of these shows out, tell them you read about it here.

Monday, November 14, 2011

CD Review: Wadada Leo Smith - Heart's Reflections

Wadada Leo Smith's Organic
Heart's Reflections

Wadada Leo Smith dedicated each of the four lengthy compositions on Heart's Reflections to a different musician or artist, although the music may or may not actually invoke the honoree's style. That doesn't detract from the power of the album. The trumpeter has once again brought together a band of electric and acoustic musicians, including four guitarists and two laptop "players," and created music that rolls along without excess. In fact, the group sounds a little more streamlined and focused than they were on 2009's Spiritual Dimensions, which was good but got a bit noodly by the end.

"Don Cherry's Electric Sonic Garden" is built on a fuzz bass riff, anchored by both John Lindberg and Skulli Sverrisson. This groove plays into the comparison to electric Miles Davis, especially considering the way Smith uses a minimal number of trumpet notes to say a lot (and his recordings with Henry Kaiser that pay tribute to Davis) but a lot of things differentiate this group. The groove is straight, without any extra rhythms over top. Pheeroan akLaff's drums sound more like a rock kit throughout the album, due to way he tunes his bass drum so low and lets it resonate. Smith sounds more gruff than Miles, and the way the guitars send out solar flares in the background adds a unique trimming to the music.

After a howling guitar solo by Michael Gregory, the rhythm section drops out briefly around the half-way mark (10 minutes into it, by the way), before it returns with a slightly different vamp to accompany Angelica Sanchez's electric piano solo. That slight break, along with another guitar solo (from Brandon Ross) and some swirling psychedelic textures, keeps the whole thing consistent.

Smith's composition titles can be a mouthful, and "Heart's Reflections: Splendors of Light and Purification" also consists of 12 individual movements or tracks, which spill from Disc One onto Disc Two. (On top of that, it's dedicated to one Shayk Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili.) There are moments in this piece where Organic sounds a bit like Prime Time, had that group all operated on the same melodic page. Some sections consist of Smith and akLaff going at it, some have an eerie group of sounds that could be either guitars or laptop noise adding to the suspense.

"Silsila," which opens the second disc, gives akLaff plenty of room and he uses it to play a solo that recalls Elvin Jones' masterful opening to "Pursuance" on A Love Supreme. His thundering crashes morph into press rolls and cymbal splashes that energize the quick rubato theme the group plays. The final two movements of the piece feature the best Smith solo on the whole session. His tone is loud and crisp, and here he plays with the bright authority of a classical trumpeter. It makes you appreciate both the depth of this composition and proves that Smith ranks high in the pantheon of jazz trumpet players. Or at least that he should.

"Toni Morrison: The Black Hole (Sagittarius A*), Conscience and Epic Memory" might be the longest title here, but at 10 minutes, it's the shortest track. It begins with some wild group noise, in a continuation of the previous piece's final moments, it seems. From there, it pulls back for some drones and sputters from the laptops and some violin scrapes before Sanchez plays an understated piano solo that slowly brings the group back in.

"Leroy Jenkins's Air Steps" pays homage to the late violinist with a 22-minute piece that alternates loud, full band sections and quiet lyrical passages. Smith should be commended for leading such a heavy group that can blow freely without ever getting too busy or heavy handed. While it's hard to single out each and every string player, they don't step on each other's feet either. A few quick stops and starts in the music indicates that this clarity isn't merely left to chance. These players are in tune with Smith's vision. More of those ghostly textures creep up behind his lyrical trumpet lines and Gregory creates some Fripp-like string attacks during his solo.

People with shorter attention spans might find the track listings on Heart's Reflections a big daunting, but it's easy to lose sense of time in this music, due to its power.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sebadoh article in Blurt!

Blurt posted my Sebadoh article on Thursday. Here it is. There were a few different angles I could've taken. Hopefully this one worked.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Ditty Committee in Pittsburgh

In the early '00s, I struck up a friendship with a New York band called Fake Brain, after they brought their spastic sort of indie rock to town a few times. They really seemed to be on the same page - or at least on the same chapter - as the Mofones.

Like most struggling bands they broke up before they garnered the big time success they deserved, but two members of the band continued playing together and last night their new lineup, the Ditty Committee rolled into town and played Rock 'n Bowl at Arsenal Lanes. Gideon, their lead singer, got in touch with me a while ago about trying to set up a show here for a mini-tour they were putting together. Considering how I've had mixed feelings about shows, and worrying about whether or not we could get a good crowd on a weeknight, I opted to put them in touch with Paul, who books Rock 'n Bowl. This way I'd get to see the band (first priority) and if they didn't exactly get a receptive audience (always a question there), at least it'd be a fun venue and they could make some dough. Well, they did, and everyone seemed to be happy. Except maybe my right arm, which got a little sore from using a bowling ball that was a tad too heavy.

After Fake Brain's traditional rock lineup (guitar, bass, drums and homemade keyboard/noise thing), I was pleasantly surprised by the Ditty Commitee's instrumentation: bass, keyboard sampler thingy (make partially of parts of the aforementioned thing), Casio (masquerading as a couple different things) and electric drums. After awhile it was clear the lyrical wit of Fake Brain had found a new home with this band and they use the instruments really well to create something solid that doesn't rely on the novelty of the sounds. These guys have a lot of great tunes. A lot of short ones too.

A few friends of mine showed up, who I told about the show and who I thought would appreciate them. Turns out, one friend works with a guy who knows the Ditty Committee and who will be playing with them in Morgantown on Saturday. And my friend Katie and her boyfriend let me bowl with them. We were all so-so bowlers, which made us a good team.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

CD Review: Gigi Gryce - Doin' the Gigi

Gigi Gryce
Doin' the Gigi

In the final, live portion of this CD, announcer MC Hugh Downs (yes, that Hugh Downs) describes Gigi Gryce's set as the music that "musicians have good reason to believe will outlast rock and roll music or any other kind of fad music that comes and goes. Maybe everybody thinks that except teenagers." That probably seemed believable in those days pre-Beatles days of 1957, yet it sounds terribly ironic when considering both the stature of that rock and roll music in the 21st century, and the stature of alto saxophonist/composer/publisher Gigi Gryce in the history of jazz. Most hard bop fans know his tunes like "Minority" and "Nica's Tempo," which have both been covered by musicians with discriminating tastes for years. He also played an active role on albums by no less than Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown for Blue Note.

But in his lifetime, Gryce was one the extremely talented but struggling musicians that fell through the cracks. He had lofty goals to run a publishing company that would get musicians the royalties they deserved, and to start his own record label. His good intentions burned him out and by the early '60s he kissed the jazz life goodbye and became a school teacher.

Doin' the Gigi uncovers some valuable radio broadcasts and unreleased sessions that offer some glimpses into the world of this alto saxophonist, who managed to hold a band together, get them tight and play music that was both innovative and accessible enough to gain fans. A close parallel can be seen with his friends Benny Golson and Art Farmer, who both played with Gryce before they started their Jazztet, which stressed the melodic swing over the frenzy of bebop.

The set moves in reverse chronological order, starting with a 1961 radio broadcast from Birdland, for better or worse with Symphony Sid announcing some of the four tracks. Richard Williams (trumpet), Eddie Costa (vibes), Richard Wyands (piano), Julian Euell (bass) and Mickey Roker (drums) join the saxophonist for a solid set that exceeds expectations of such a frontline. The original "A Premonition of You (aka Baby G)" has a structure similar to "Lover Man," although the closing phrase doesn't have the chord shift that gives the latter its hook. For "A Night In Tunisia," Gryce has Costa play the theme over a 6/4 rhythm, switching to the standard 4/4 to end the phrase. If that wasn't unique enough, the tag at the end of the chorus is taken in 7/4, clipping off a beat while adding to the urgency. Gryce has a tone like Charlie Parker, although he was less interested in drawing on bebop licks than establishing his own personality. The same group appears in two studio tracks for what seems to be plans for a self-released single. "Blues in Bloom," which lasted 11 minutes at Birdland, is limited to three here but still sounds tight.

Another session, found on a demo disc dated 1960, has Gryce, Williams, Wyands and an unknown rhythm section in an odd selection of tunes. Curtis Fuller's "Down Home," (another inclusion from the Birdland set) appears with "Stompin' at the Savoy," and "Take the A Train." All of them, especially the Strayhorn perennial, sound contemporary, by '50s standards, thanks to Gryce's arranging skills.

Back in 1957, Gryce was involved with the short-lived Signal label. Among his contributions was a quartet session with Thelonious Monk which included the pianist's rarely played tunes "Shuffle Boil" and "Gallop's Gallop." (Why the otherwise detailed booklet reduces that session to a passing phrase seems odd.) In June of that year, the label held a release party that was broadcast on tv, and is released here. This time the band includes Cecil Payne (baritone sax), Duke Jordan (piano), Wendell Marshall (bass) and Art Taylor (drums). Five tracks range from "All the Things You Are" to the Jordan-Payne "Man of Moods" (which sounds a lot like Charlie Parker's "Segment") and "Blues Walk," another much-contested melody that had been recorded by Clifford Brown, but is said to have originated with saxophonist Chris Woods.

All of these tracks last less than three minutes and commentary from Downs and Al "Jazzbo" Collins seem a little quaint all these years later. And while the liners make the argument that the brevity didn't give the quintet enough time to make an impression - thus contributing to Gryce's fate - it overlooks the fact that a lot of jazz back then was probably in the single format. So we jazz fans might dig an 11-minute workout more, but John Q. Public might get hitched on songs that come in short spurts on his television screen.

Taken together, it provides a nice profile on Gryce and makes me want to dig out the albums he did with Lee Morgan or hunt down the Prestige albums done under his own leadership.

Friday, November 04, 2011

The man with the best job in the world

Michael Cuscuna spoke tonight at Pitt as part of the university's Jazz Seminar. (The print version of my Q&A with him in City Paper is pretty short but you can find the whole, uncut interview, full of all kinds of jazz geek anecdotes, right here.)

When I got the William Pitt Union tonight, I saw Mr. C towards the front of the auditorium, talking to another guy. I got a chance to chat with him and found that he was as warm a guy in person as he was on the phone. He spoke for about 45 minutes, all killer, no filler. And when it came time for questions, I was actually first, asking how many Mosaic projects were charted for the future. (Answer - it all depends on when the label licenses the albums to him. Right now there are 2 in progress, and 8 on paper.) Someone asked about Andrew Hill, which I was glad to hear because the world needs more Andrew Hill champions. I really wanted to ask him who was more of a challenge to work with, Cecil Taylor or Andrew. But I didn't get the chance. After the talk, he had what seemed like an interview or something going on with some other fellow.

And now Michael has my card, so if he decides he needs a second banana to hang out with him while combing through the latest batch of tapes for his next project, and no one else picks up when he calls, then once pigs start flying, then he'll give me a call.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sebadoh, Morty and Me

Tuesday night, Sebadoh played at the Brillobox. This has been a much-anticipated show for me, in part because it was 20 years ago this month that I first saw them at the Upstage Lounge, besides the fact that I really liked the band. A group called Mazes opened up, a trio that was also into the catchy-but-noisy approach. They reminded me a little of what Pale Saints sounded like on their first album, underneath all the dreamy reverb and glitter.

Before the show Jason Loewenstein (also known as "Jake"), was milling around the room (for those who don't know, Brillobox is pretty small, upstairs where the bands play) and I talked to him for a little bit. I've met him several times when he's come to town playing with the Fiery Furnaces and he actually seemed to remember me this time. Me and guy from another band were both kind of politely geeking out while we talked and Jake seemed geniunely flattered and amused that we remembered so many details of shows and albums (like his solo album Sixes and Sevens that I talked up to the other guy).

The last time I saw Sebadoh was probably around 1997 or '98 and they took so damn long between songs that it killed the momentum. That's all changed. Now the band - which is completely by Bob D'Amico (also in the Furnaces) on drums - is tight. The only time things slowed between songs was when they either talked to the audience or when Lou Barlow and Loewenstein switched instruments.

Sebadoh's songs were always powerful because the subject matter often dealt with personal issues that I really related to, and the delivery also made it pretty real, whether it was a quiet solo Barlow song, or a loud raging one. To his credit, Loewenstein seemed to show a vulnerable but tough side on Bakesale too. Hearing those songs again all these years later, they still have the same emotional and visceral impact that they did originally, which proves the band's strength - that this wasn't just some musical drama that everyone goes through in their 20s. This is still great music that gets you right here. Hopefully that makes sense.

I went home after Sebadoh and got to bed around 1 a.m. At 5 a.m. I woke up and started writing an article on a Morton Feldman mini-festival/symposium that's happening in Pittsburgh next week. I kind of felt like that particularly yoke was around my neck for the past 10 days or so, since it took almost that long to get some interviews set up. Plus there was also the issue of getting schooled in his music before I wrote the piece. But me and Morty have completed our work.

With all that work done, I just dawdled last night. There were some things I should've done, and actually thought I would but I nodded off in front of the laptop, but this time I didn't beat myself up over it. I only four hours of sleep, so I was well within my rights. Then I hit the hay a little before midnight.

Friday, October 21, 2011

CD Review: The Spanish Donkey - XYX

The Spanish Donkey

Let Joe Morris go a few weeks without a shave, put him together with two rough looking bearded dudes, and - wham - he can pass for a metal dude.

Actually, that's not really true, nor fair. But seeing the liner photo where Morris is flanked by Mike Pride (drums) and Jamie Saft (keyboards, bass), the trio known here as the Spanish Donkey looks like it could be the latest entry in progressive death metal. As it turns out, the legend on the back cover ("File under: avant-metal jazz") is pretty much on the money.

Morris is no stranger to free improvisation or any kind of adventurous jazz, but his own releases have never gone this far in terms of heaviness. Saft has played keyboards with John Zorn (who's never been afraid to mix metal or any kind of noise like that with a jazz sense) and he also plays in a duo with drummer Bobby Previte. It's clear that Saft has a deadly combination: a desire to create heavy, ugly music and utilize some serious chops to pull it off. With Pride along to help shape some contours of the music, things fall into place.

XYX consists of two tracks, one 37 minutes long, the other 23 minutes. Make no mistake, this is brutal, heavy and ugly, but in the best way possible. And these guys play with their ears turned to their bandmates, to ensure that it doesn't sound like an endless wall of noise or noodling. Pride plays a key role in "Mid-Evil" for when he pulls back off the trap kit, it gives the music a chance to take on a different shape. The first five minutes create a ruckus of Morris's guitar and Saft's low-end keyboards dancing around over Pride's free clatter. When he stops, the guitar lapses into would might be a metal spaghetti western theme. One quality that also makes this session more compelling is Morris' clean tone. Where some old might be tempted to play through a bank of pedals, Morris plays absolutely clean, putting all of his melodic and technical skills to work.

Around the 13 minute mark, a change comes as Saft holds down some bass synthesizer notes that lead to some percussive, high notes that howl over Morris's skronk. Later on, some actual chords emanate from one of Saft's battery of keys, sounding for a moment like Rick Wright's performance on Pink Floyd's "A Saucerful of Secrets."

Although there's a clear break between "Mid-Evil" and "XYX," it could easily be one that was inserted in post-production so the listener would have a breather. The second track continues in the same spirit as the first, although the second half of it does actual become more of a long wave of sound that doesn't offer any dynamic shifts and just pummels away. But if you've made it that far into the set, you clearly have the stamina for such a mind numbing sound.

If you're still left wanting more after an hour of this stuff, the CD contains download code for a bonus track that can be found on the Northern Spy website.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Work. Sort of.

It's turning out to be a week of phone interviews. On Monday I talked to Lou Barlow, which - as you might have deduced if you checked out the entries from a few years back about Sebadoh III - was quite a thrill. Not only that, Lou was a great interview: very laidback and forthcoming about his songwriting. And quotable, which was what really made me happy. I didn't get to preview Sebadoh's upcoming Pittsburgh show for City Paper but Blurt is interested in something.

Then tonight I got to talk to the guy with the best job in the world. No, not Ashley Kahn. I mean Michael Cuscuna. In case the name doesn't ring a bell, there's a good chance his work might. Michael has been involved with pretty much every Blue Note reissue since the CD age began. Plus he's worked for other labels too. And (put your hand on your heart) he created the Mosaic label in the early 1980s, which has set the standard for deluxe reissues in all that time since. Talk about music as works of art. Look here.

Then tomorrow night I'm talking to a guy who's coming to Pittsburgh to perform at a mini-festival honoring the late composer Morton Feldman. And on Monday night (fresh back in town from a trip to Ohio) I'm interviewing this guy's daughter, who teaches at Pitt and it putting this thing together.

In other news, I saw Ned Rothenberg last night at Frick Fine Arts. He performed a piece with a string quartet that was released on the Tzadik label. It wasn't quite what I had hoped for - I know he's played alto in the past, but last night he was playing clarinet. Still it was a good show, at least the parts that I stayed awake for. Nothing against Rothenberg or his band, but between the pain in my back and my general feelings when I need to sit still, there was much nodding off happening last night. I can't tell, but I think I got some dirty looks.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Social Climbers - Vintage No wave you might like

Also Blurt ran my review of a CD reissue by the Social Climbers, a band sort of affiliated with the no wave scene of late '70s/early '80s New York. This one has music too! So check it out.

Review from JazzTimes website

JazzTimes posted my review of the Starlicker show right here. Check it out.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Interview with Rob Mazurek

Last week to preview Starlicker's show at the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh City Paper ran a very short Q&A that I did with Rob Mazurek, the band's cornetist and main composer. Mazurek preferred to do the interview by email, which was fine with me. No need to schedule a phone call or transcribe the interview afterwards. After reading what he had to say, I was kind of glad too, because I might've missed some of the subtleties of what he had to say.

Here's the transcribed interview in its entirety. (I didn't post it sooner because I thought CP was going to do that on their website.)

Q: You've played in both large bands like Exploding Star Orchestra to duos like Chicago Underground Duo. Do those two settings present different musical challenges to you, or do you see it as all part of one big musical picture?

Mazurek: Composing sound for me is like is like watching stillness grow into enormous wings. Exploding Star Orchestra has had up to 19 people in the group and as little as four, while the Chicago Underground Duo is Chad Taylor and myself sometimes manipulating up to 13 different sound sources. The idea is to project a sound that that has the potential for psychedelic illumination, or what I like to call PSYCHEDELIC ILLUMINATION DRONES. The different musical challenges that you are speaking of are all inherent in the way in which you move the sound in the mind, on paper, in the room... and what kind of palette you are dealing with as far as what instruments or non-instruments people are actually playing.

Q: In the liner notes to Starlicker’s Double Demon, you're quoted as saying, "I feel like I've been looking for this sound for 20 years." What is "this sound" in this case? Why has it been so hard to find?

Mazurek: I have always been searching for this sound that happens above the head. A sound which has nothing to do with genre, hip lines, denigrating the past. I have been searching for a way to illuminate sound, so it just hangs there in the clouds, like a cloud, like a complex cloud of power and sweetness. Maybe it has been so hard to find because of the confusion of mass media/political feeding frenzy that tries at all costs to penetrate your natural creative life force and kill it.

Q: Again, according to the liner notes, you wrote the tunes for the album in a day and a half. How did they come out so quickly - pressure or inspiration? Were they based on things you already had in mind?

Mazurek: I put together a group a few years back called the Rob Mazurek Quintet where we made a record for Delmark records called Sound Is. This idea for the group came out of my desire to find a way to create these PSYCHEDELIC ILLUMINATION DRONES. The first rehearsal of this idea was with John Herndon on drums, Jason Adasiewicz on vibraphone and myself on cornet. I did not quite find the sound I was looking for and in the meantime created a book of songs that needed two bass players to project the idea in the best of ways. After time and more writing and thinking, the sound came to me in a wave and I wrote the six compositions on Double Demon. Not pressure as much as inspiration, especially from the illuminating sound of John and Jason.

Q: Aside from instrumentation, what else is different about this set-up as compared to other groups you have?

Mazurek: For some reason I feel incredibly free within the confines of the structures. All the instruments sing in a very peculiar way that is beyond words. Perhaps a distilled sound that takes into account specific frequencies from limited sound sources to create the illumination that seems so important to me at this time.

Q: How did you settle on Starlicker as a band name?

Mazurek: I enjoy the idea of evolution and the fact that we have no idea where we came from and where we go after this life. New galaxies are being found daily and it is an interesting thing to ponder. I like to reach as far as I can and attempt to discover things on my own terms, in my own way with like minded people. I am not interested in rehashing endlessly what has happened before. Whether for good or bad I want to stretch the tongue out, split the sky, and taste the furthest star.

Q: Both this band name and Exploding Star Orchestra seem to have a connection with outer space. Does that factor into the way you write, and/or is it part of a philosophy in your life?

Mazurek: I would like to send out to the world and worlds beyond PSYCHEDELIC ILLUMINATION DRONES for healing and learning and respecting everything that IS and IS NOT in hopes of ultimate communication that might not even make a sound. We live in a world that loves to kill. Killing the spirit, killing the hope, killing the creative in all things. The connection to outer space is the connection to inner space and all else that is seen and not seen. The philosophy is to live a creative life with the idea of cracking the shell of this absolutely conservative/corporate imposed existence and peer into the un-known/known in order to learn something that was never there before and has always been there.

Q: In Chicago, do forward-thinking bands like yours get respect from a larger audience that might reach into the "straight" jazz community too, or are you more of a fringe group?

Mazurek: Last year I released the Exploding Star Orchestra record Stars Have Shapes which I believe was an attempt to really push the boundaries of what is at least a little bit possible in my mind to project in the realm of electro-acoustic sound making. If you look what was said in my own home town of Chicago about the music and what was said in other parts of the world, it was almost an opposite response. It was record of the year on Italian National Radio3, you could hear the crickets in Chicago. On the other hand Exploding Star Orchestra will play two nights at the Green Mill in Chicago or four nights at the Whistler and there is a line out the block. You play festivals in Europe and Brazil and the listeners are ecstatic and many. Starlicker is getting ready to tour France, Italy and Poland this month. Exploding Star Orchestra just played Sardinia!

Although there are plenty of folks looking for there "angle" on how to make music or how to conduct their life, I prefer to just make sound and let it fall where it may. From my observations there certainly could be a little more boundary pushing in Chicago, but this is a tricky thing. There are certainly a few people making nice records with nice songs done in a nice way and perhaps this is enough for some people, but it's just not for me. There are a few people trying to crack the egg as well and this is exciting for me. I am in no way trying to say the way I make or project music is good or bad, but it is honest and I am desperately reaching for something else.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Birthday Weekend in Review

Playing right now: Jason Adasiewicz - Rolldown (482 Music)

Not to be confused with Varmint by Jason Adasiewicz's Rolldown, which I reviewed some time early last year. This is an album I picked up on Saturday when the vibist played at the Warhol Museum in the trio Starlicker. Rob Mazurek (cornet) and John Herndon (drums) make up the rest of the band.

I was eagerly anticipating this show for several months. I'm familiar with Mazurek's various projects, and I like him a lot, but I really like Adasiewicz. He's appeared on a lot of albums, most of which I had forgotten about when I saw him. But if I had remembered, there's a good chance I would've turned into Fan Boy and started humping his leg. (Jason, don't worry, that's just metaphor.) They had vinyl, and everything was only $10 a pop so I couldn't resist getting Rolldown as well as the new Sao Paulo Underground LP that includes Mazurek.

I'm holding off on details of Starlicker's performance because I'm going to write a review for the JazzTimes website. I'll link it here when it runs.

It was a good weekend for bold jazz around these parts. I know the VIA fest was going on, but I was out of town during some crucial shows that were part of that event, on Thursday night. On Friday, my birthday I might add, Ben Opie played a double-set of sorts. First, Thoth Trio played, followed by Opie's new group Flexure. Thoth was great to see, since it's been awhile since I've made it to one of their shows, and they don't get to play all that often (although this month they have an unprecedented three shows!). Ben played "a birthday song" for me, which he didn't announce by title. It was Monk's "We See," which I recognized but couldn't remember the name of that night. (I did remember in my mind which Columbia and Prestige albums it appears on, though.)

Flexure is inspired by electric period Miles Davis, and it features guitar, trumpet, percussion, drums and bass guitar, along with Ben's alto. They were pretty hot - straddling freedom and grooves. But, man, at 44 I can't stay awake at a show past 12:30. I was nodding off again. But too committed to leave until the set was done. I probably should've just ordered a water to go with my drink.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

An appreciation: Lovin' Spoonful - Everything Playing

A few weeks ago when we had a yard sale, I combed through the record collection I bought over the summer, pulling out things that were worth more than $1, or that I just didn't want to sell. Shoved in with a bunch of classical albums, I found a few gems including Lovin' Spoonful's Daydream album. This was a cool discovery because during my junior high school years, I was really into '60s bands and this group ranked high on the list. I found a sealed copy of Daydream back then, and played it a lot until I sold either because of money or because I felt like I had outgrown it. Listening to it again, I decided this one was going to stay.

Lovin' Spoonful is something of an unsung act, I think. They get dismissed as a group that played lighter pop, largely because of "Do You Believe In Magic," which has been used endlessly in commercials which have really sanitized the song. (To extend that thought, a former bandmate of mine used to play "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice" and switch out the words for equally sugary, bland phrases to poke fun at them.) "Summer in the City" proved that they was a hard edge to them, due to its driving riff. But to really find out what the band could do, check out the instrumental "Night Owl Blues" from their first album. I haven't actually heard the song in over two decades but I can still hear John Sebastian's searing harmonica intro.

Daydream has a lot going for it, like the sharply worded "Jug Band Music," another great instrumental called "Big Noise from Speonk" and "You Didn't Have to..." which actually sounds pretty solid thanks to a great guitar riff and electric piano accompaniment. But right now I want to present an appreciation of Spoonful album number four, Everything Playing. Released in 1968, it had to catch up with the new direction in which Sgt. Pepper had pushed pop music, and the band was also recovering from the departure of guitarist Zal Yanovsky. (Although the liner notes to one CD reissued stated that Yanovsky was still a presence at least in the studio while the album was being made.) Regardless of the situation, Everything Playing stands up as a strong album that offers plenty of AM radio-friendly hooks, which get balanced out with more sophisticated studio arrangements. For that reason, it should be considered an overlooked gem that should be ranked along with revered albums like Pet Sounds and S.F. Sorrow. Hopefully I will prove my point.

The cover art was a departure from the previous three albums, which typically pictured Sebastian, Yanovsky, bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler in poses where they were hamming it up. Sebastian drew the front of Everything Playing which depicts the band playing on the beach with various animals and sea urchins. He drew himself in a very Lennon-esque way, and Yanovsky's successor Jerry Yester looks pretty stoned. The band photo on the back replaces the group's wide smiles with a more saturnine look, especially Sebastian himself, who doesn't smile and has swapped his trademark Granny glasses for something a little more styling. Boone looks like a hip college professor, or Match Game era Richard Dawson, in a turtleneck with a jacket over it. Yester, the only one smiling, and Butler both wear suit jackets and white ties. Below them, the song titles are written in various colors and sizes and scripts, looking very random.

"She Is Still a Mystery," one of the singles from the album, kicks things off with a smarter-than-your-average-pop-song structure from Sebastian, which gets a boost from the use of horns and possibly strings (arrangement credited to Yester). It has a dreamlike quality to it but it doesn't lack any of the band's spot-on harmonies, which come through in the chorus. There's almost a Van Dyke Parks feel to the song.

From there, the group could go anywhere and they cover all their bases. Boone gets his first and last lead vocal in "Priscilla Millionaira" which is a little frayed but it suits the goofball quality of the song, which has a little bit of a garage rock sound to it. The lead break seems to wander away towards another key, and then suddenly it snaps back for the last verse. "Six O'clock" another single, proves how strong of a rock band the Spoonful could be. It starts out with an overdriven organ, pounding out the rhythm, and Sebastian again proves how skills with lyrics and melody. In the coda, the slashing guitar and drums sound like the band channels the Who - and pulls it off. As a total contrast, side one ends with a Boone instrumental called "Forever," which features the session horn players as much as the group. At best, there are some Bacharach colors to the changes; at worst, it's smack dab in Easy Listening territory. What's the back story on that one, I'd like to know.

Speaking of Sebastian's gift with words, "Younger Generation" might sound a little dated and maybe a little cutesy, but it really nails the feeling of impending fatherhood as seen through the eyes of a guy trying to maintain the open mindedness that he thought his parents lacked. If only Sebastian were better known for his performance of this song at Woodstock, he might be regarded as a great lyrcist now.

Butler and Yester get some songwriting credit mid-way through this side. The drummer's "Old Folks" probably didn't endear him to any listeners moving into the counterculture, what with his sympathies for the titular people. Not exactly on the same level as Paul Simon's "Old Friends." His collaboration with Yester, "Only Pretty, What a Pity" is a gem, which was the b-side to the "Mystery" single. Beginning with a galloping snare roll, it yet again brings up Who references (Butler comes across as an underrated drummer throughout the album). Yester's strong folk vocal gets a little buried in the verses but the band all joins in for the breaks, sounding like a bunch of choir boys. The weird part comes in the middle, where the vocal sounds like its run through the vocal devise Peter Frampton would use 10 years later. It makes the lyrics indecipherable, though and I only discovered what they were a few nights ago when I finally found them online. (A search a couple years ago was fruitless.)

After Sebastian's somewhat soulful "Try a Little Bit," Yester returns to the spotlight for "Close Your Eyes," an odd but suitable ending for the album. It foreshadows, melodically, what he'd do with Judy Henske on Farewell Aldebaran, with a minor key and high vocal by him that gets more impassioned with each verse. The strings in the break really push it towards dissonance, evoking a feeling of darkness. By the time he repeats the last verse, he's dueling with them to be heard.

Then the song goes into a coda that reminds us what band this is: an instrumental riff lead by Sebastian's autoharp. And more of those thunderous Butler drums. It feels as if Lovin' Spoonful went through a transformation from happy jugband to something else and came out intact. Then it fades.
This was the last album that the band released. (One more featured Butler and session musicians.) After a career known for lighter fare and a lighter delivery, Everything Playing indicates that they could get heavy if they felt like it.