Wednesday, April 27, 2011

CD Review - Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble - The Prairie Prophet

Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble
The Prairie Prophet

One of the best things about musicians associated with the AACM is that they don't limit themselves to one style of music. The Art Ensemble of Chicago might have a corner on the phrase, "Great black music, from the Ancient to the Future," but many of their peers and elders seem to feel the same way. Of course, when Sun Ra lived in Chicago, he had no qualms with jumping from big band swing to outer space free improvisation, and the Art Ensemble could likewise go from space to gutbucket R&B. Saxophonist Ernest Dawkins is the same way, knowing that playing changes over 4/4 isn't passe as long as you're pushing forward with the music instead of merely replicating your heroes. The Prairie Prophet succeeds because it gracefully goes from serious post-bop to the most rollicking of free excursions, and this group knows how to handle both.

The album is dedicated to the late Fred Anderson, who lead by example with his far-ranging music, as well as his humility and the way he supported other musicians in Chicago. (Since he passed last summer, there have been many tributes to him, and expect to see more.) "Hymn for a Hip King" is a nod towards Anderson (and, Dawkins says, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X) and it begins the set with a bright waltz. Marquis Hill plays a flugelhorn solo marked by a serious of staccato figures, while Dawkins - on alto - sounds tough. Drummer Isaiah Spencer gets a little wild for such a straight ahead piece, but he never gets in the way.

The 12-minute "Sketches," follows with a complete about-face. The loose theme recalls both the writing of the Art Ensemble and, in the bridge, Grachan Moncur III. Shaun Johnson (trumpet) and Steve Berry (trombone) solo with spirit, the latter accompanied by Dawkins blowing both alto and tenor simultaneously. Things only get wilder during Jeff Parker's skronking, channel-shifting solo. Dawkins clearly loves to play with dynamics, and he follows this wild track with "Balladesque," a succinct two-minute piece that doesn't need any more than a strong statement that lives up to its name.

The rest of the album keeps the spirit going. "Shades of the Prairie Prophet" starts off free and tumbling, only to switch to a Mingus boogie, five minutes in. "Mal-Lester," despite its questionable title, pays homage to Messrs. Favors and Bowie. "Baghdad Boogie" has a groovy vamp with a repetition of the title that recalls Sun Ra. Towards the end, Dawkins gets on the mike for a well-spoken political testimony about the war and its effect on youth.

Too often jazz musicians make CDs that mindlessly bow down to the legacy of this music, and they don't attempt to reveal anything unique about their own identity. (How many tribute albums to the same few popular legends do we need?) Sometimes players who fit the description of free jazz musicians or avant garde get dismissed because they don't appear to have an affinity for the past. It'd be easy to go on a rant here about listeners being afraid of new directions in music, but the point is - Dawkins proves that there isn't a disconnect between any of this music. With the right amount of focus and devotion, you can have it both ways.

It makes me regret missing his Pittsburgh appearance last summer.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

CD Review: Kermit Driscoll - Reveille

Kermit Driscoll

A few months ago I got a copy of Miles Davis' Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970) CD. One of the more intriguing aspects of the performance is that Miles was opening a bill that included the Steve Miller Band and Neil Young & Crazy Horse. What did the counterculture cats at the Fillmore think of this band, which was playing some of the most seering music of Davis' whole career? Were they out getting high before their bands came on or were they in their seats getting their minds blown?

I mention this because I wondered, during second half of "Thank You," what would happen if Kermit Driscoll's quartet wound up on a bill ata place like Philadelphia's Theater of Arts, opening for, let's say, Arcade Fire. (I was trying to come up with a popular band that draws open-minded listeners.) The song is fairly subdued, based on a steady riff. Then around 3:30, Bill Frisell kicks on the distortion and tears it up like no one else can. Drummer Vinnie Colaiuta starts to go off as well, and things fall apart beautifully. Instead of going back to restate the head, bassist Driscoll opts to end the tune there. Smart thinking.

I could see the hipsters in the audience being skeptical of these 50-somethings (although pianist Kris Davis is a bit younger) because they're ageist, quite often. But when they find out these guys can shred better than most guys half their age, it can change some minds.

It can also make you wonder if this music can be considered jazz.

Actually I go through this mental process a few times a year, when an album comes out that's really strong and is somehow tied to jazz (the players' past affiliations or a cover tune, usually) but really sounds like it exists in its own universe. Chris Potter, Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa are names to spring to mind at the moment as people who elicit this response. Driscoll, the bassist probably best known for his work in Frisell's band, has done the same thing on Revielle, his first even album as a leader.

Not all of the album falls into the same rocking category as "Thank You," although their reading of Joe Zawinul's Peter-Gunn-with-a-club-foot groove "Great Expectations" (first heard on Miles' Big Fun) ups the ante even further. In fact some of the songs have something of a country feel to them. "Boomstatz" combines that country twang with a little bit of funk, over a harmonic format that takes some great left turns, especially with the vamp in the bridge. "Farm Life," which Driscoll wrote two decades ago, also has an Americana vibe thanks to some crisp guitar work. The pastoral feeling continues with "Martin Sklar," one of the few pieces where the leader gives himself some time in the spotlight.

Take all these tunes together with the traditional "Chicken Reel" (a tune that will be remembered by anyone who knows Warner Brothers cartoons) and much of the album might seem like a balance between Americana and electric jazz. But Driscoll has some tricks up his sleeve, like Davis' use of prepared piano in "Ire" and her liberties with tempo in "Hekete" which concludes with another bright Frisell melody.

So maybe this band isn't exactly equipped to open for the Arcade Fire. I'd still like to see it happen. A crazy billing like that could have some serious reverberations.

Remembering Billy Bang

As I was getting ready to leave the house on Saturday to go to Paul's CDs (see previous post), my friend Toby texted me, telling me that Billy Bang had died. I knew he had been sick for a while, but the timing was especially telling because I had just filed a review to JazzTimes of a new album he released with double-reed maestro Bill Cole. He died on April 11 at age 63. Lung cancer was the cause.

I got to see Billy perform twice. The first time happened in 2000, when he, the late tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe and drummer Abbey Rader played at a lecture hall at Pitt. (Local musician Bob Wagner wrote a great column that ran in the Post-Gazette about this show. It's well worth looking up.) That show was very low key, and even got delayed when Bang broke a string, 10 seconds into the first song, and he had to stop to repair it. Specifics about that show are foggy now, but I do remember thinking how happy Rader looked as he played, swinging hard and free, alternately. Frank Lowe, who seemed a little frail and passed away a few years after that, sounded good, nonetheless. I had one album of his that I didn't think was all that good and that night I realized that while Lowe might not have a whole lot of technique he really knew how to use what he had and it made his performance strong. Bang avoided scrapey, screechy free violin sounds and kept things on the melodic side.

Bang returned to Pittsburgh in 2008 with a group called the Aftermath Band, playing music from his two Viet Nam albums. By that time, his star was shining, based on the fact that he was not only able to come to terms with the effects of service in the Viet Nam war, but also because he channeled that experience into two compelling albums. The group included alto saxophonist James Spaulding (who I've always dug) and trumpeter Ted Daniel, as well as some slightly younger players.

It was a pretty moving show, in part because it fell right around the time of Veteran's Day, which emcee Chris Moore spoke a bit about that at the beginning of the show. Between sets, they screened some rough footage of Bang on a visit back to the forests where he served during the war. There was one particular scene, where Bang - who up until this point has been pretty reserved and strong - tells the crew to shut off the cameras because the experience is getting too intense for him. When someone that proud reaches a level like that, you know they aren't bullshitting you, and it can give you a great amount of empathy for what he went through (several decades of darkness) before he could really cope with those experiences. I only hope he felt a sense of peace and musical fulfillment in his final days.

But that's the background. He'd probably prefer for folks to check out the music too. The JazzTimes obit mentions Don Cherry and David Murray as collaborators. He also recorded with Marilyn Crispell and played with Sun Ra. Check out what you can by him, it's all fascinating.

One final thought from the second Bang show (organized by Kente Arts Alliance and presented at the Kelly-Strayhorn, FYI), when the band brought down the last tune of the evening, there was something magical about the final chord. It jolted me out of my seat and gave me a big sense of energy. Not sure what it was, but I loved it.

Thanks, Billy.

What's up with that?

Everyday, the review of the Bizingas CD that I posted in January gets a spam comment that's written in some language made up of symbols that I can't read. Blogger deletes it for me so I don't have to do it myself or delude myself into thinking I'm getting more hits than I have. But still - what's in that review that generates it?

National Record Store Day - A Recap

I worked all weekend, and yesterday and today are my days to watch the kid alone. (He's on Spring Break this week.) So only now am I finding time to catch up for recent events.

National Record Store Day started in Pittsburgh at 12:01 a.m. Saturday morning (Friday night, in other words). Technically it started in Millvale because that's where the Attic is located, and that store is the one that opened early. I figured there'd be a few vinyl freaks hovering outside the door before the joint opened. Little did I know that a queue would be forming that snaked around the corner by the time the doors swung open. Most of the people in line looked like they were in their 20s, and it wasn't dudes either. There were several dames who had a vested interest in the music. Looks like the love of vinyl skipped a generation and is coming back in full force.

The aisles in the Attic are pretty narrow so it got claustrophobic immediately. I made a beeline back to their jazz section because the store was offering 10% off of their regular inventory, and I figured that section would be easy to maneuver. Eventually I checked out some of the Record Store Day boxes of goodies and when I got up in line, my buddy Stripey (who works with me when he's not working at the Attic) told me about the Velvet Underground single that was available. Even though I have the two songs already ("Foggy Notion" b/w "I Can't Stand It"), I felt like I needed to purchase a couple RSD specials. I decided against the Beach Boys 78 of "Good Vibrations" & "Heroes & Villains," knowing that even if the record was thick enough for my Victrola to play it, it'd still rip right through the vinyl. (I still don't have a good needle for my turntable that has 78.) Oh yeah - it was $15 too.

Total take for the night:
Velvet Underground 45
Television, live double album from San Francisco 1978 (which I knew was worth it 5 minutes into it)
Lee Konitz - Inside Hi-Fi (black label Atlantic, a little scratchy but still great)
Chico Hamilton - Ellington Suite (still there 2 years after I first saw it, so I had too)

The next morning, I stopped at Paul's CDs on the way into work. They too had a line, though it wasn't as long. It was a little easier to move around, but again I wasn't interested in waiting in line at the counter to check out the 45s. I picked up Mates of State's Team Boo (on red vinyl) wondering the whole time if it's the one album of theirs I have on CD (it isn't) and Destroyer's new Kaputt not because it was a RSD item but because it's intrigued me since the day the guys at Paul's played it for me and made fun of it so bad that I decided not to buy it. (I can be easily swayed with these things.) I hope to talk soon about that album in this space.

I have to say it was really encouraged to see how polite the vinyl freaks were through this whole thing. Indie hipsters often tend to me be socially inept, no sooner saying "Excuse me" than buying Hannah Montana CDs, but everyone I encountered seemed nice. At Paul's, one cat even let me cut ahead of him in line after we chatted about our finds. See - vinyl does cure everything!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Watt Makes a Man Start Fires

It’s been a week since City Paper ran my “5 Questions with Mike Watt” piece but when it did, I still thought there was a lot of good comments that stayed on the cutting room floor. Here’s pretty much the whole conversation, which took place as he was driving in his van to the twelfth of 51 gigs on the tour and as I was whacked out on Novocain on half my face. Watt was in a great mood and at the points where “laughs” is indicated, it was typically a hearty guffaw.

What’s up with your knee?

It was at a Stooges gig in France, near Marseilles [in July 2010]. Last note of the first song, “Raw Power.” And I just turned wrong. It’s healing very slow. But I keep pushing. Gig number 12 tonight in Gainesville. 51 in 52 days. So I try to look beyond my middle-aged physical shortcomings. What can I do? I can work my fingers, though. It is difficult in a way, ’cause I want my whole body to express this third opera.

You’ve always kept going despite injuries. I remember a fIREHOSE show where your head was bandaged up because the van caught on fire.

I just try to keep perspective, Michael. For all the lame shit there’s some good shit. So I try to — [laughs] — be occupied with that and not let the other things get me down too much. Everybody has some lame stuff or circumstances. A farmer would tell you, to get a good crop, use a lotta manure!

Do you think you got that ability to keep going from your dad?

Oh yeah. I think so. Coming from working people. I think also [I got it from] the early punk scene, which was not very popular. We built a kind of self-reliant, us guys in our own band and the bands in our scene. Black Flag, the Huskers, Meat Puppets. The guys putting on the gigs. And the fanzines. It was like a parallel universe. I guess I have a huge debt to the movement. And, yeah, going back too before that with my Pop. If you weren’t into it, it wasn’t gonna get done. OK – it’s the reality on the dealio. It is interesting how in a way – there’s no choice but in a way it’s a lot about choice. It’s a weird duality.

Well it’s about making a choice and sticking to it through the thick and thin.

I guess it gets kinda like an existential [thing]. On the other hand, I kind of believe the knowing is in the doing! Instead of just thinking about it, you’re actually working on it. To make it happen, whatever that is! [Laughs]

You’re finding out what will happen instead of wondering.

Or just sitting in the coffee shop just talking about it. I’d rather be in the practice pad with my guys getting a thing ready. I’m all into talking and ideas and all this, but there’s something about acting on stuff. That’s where the whole idea of jam econo comes. You don’t let those material short comings keep it just [in the] spiel stage. Try to make it happen. Like a skater. When you fall down, get back on the board. You can’t really talk your way out of it.

You’ve spent the greater part of the last 30 years on the road, getting in a van and driving across the country. How do you still stand all that driving and squalid existence?

You can say a lot of things about the US and Canada – ‘cuz Canada’s on this tour too. They are big. That means you gotta roll some. At the same time, it’s kind of interesting: People take time off and spend money on vacations to do stuff like this and travel around. We realized this from the early tours. There is the B word burden but there’s also this O word opportunity where all these different paths… I just have this opinion – it’s kind of the bottom line of the third opera: Everybody’s got something to teach you. So it’s neat going to all the towns, all the different regions, all the different ways people cook up their chow. There’s bayou, there’s mountain, there’s river, there’s sand. I guess, again – this perspective idea. Having five starving children and working in a salt mine might be a little more tough. [Laughs] But I know what you mean, Michael, I know what you mean. I just weigh it all out and look at the net thing and think it’s happening. It’s kinda like my Pop – sailor’s life. Isn’t that trippy I almost ended up being like my Pop. Or I am. It’s kinda.. different… That’s the interesting thing about getting into the middle years. Because in the 20s you knew everything! And that’s what this third opera’s about too — things like that which you just mentioned. I never had children so I’m kind of the opinion where maybe these recorded works are like my children. They’ll be here after I’m gone. We never thought about that when we were younger. It was more like they were flyers for the gigs. I look at it as having their own little lives.

I was fascinated to see that the new album was influenced by Hieronymus Bosch. The thing I like about your work is that on one hand you’ve got the working class roots, but then you’ve got Dante and Bosch influencing your work.

Yeah, yeah. And [James] Joyce… The people I met in the ’70s punk scene, they weren’t from Pedro. They were painters and artist people. D Boon was a painter, although we didn’t know much about the culture of it. These people we met really [were] trippy people that knew about art stuff and intellectual stuff and had big influence on us. Which you might not imagine with punk, because it became more of a thing for younger people. But the first punk was actually people from literary, glam and art people. I think people got lost on that because it moved to the suburbs in the early ’80s with hardcore and it’s kind of a lot different. But that’s ok. That’s why I’m kind of a weird mixture.

So about Bosch, every track on the new album represents…

One of his creatures. Little men. I was kind fascinated as boy. In the encyclopedia, I saw him. I was into dinosaurs and astronauts too. [Laughs] It was just so freaky, you know. I actually got to see the real ones in Spain. There’s eight of them in the Museo del Prado in Madrid that was really trippy. Wow. More strong than a picture in an encyclopedia. It just reminded me of ….in the Minutemen we used to use all the little things to make one thing. I think that’s what he did. His pictures are made of lots of little pictures. So that gave me idea for the mechanical part of the third opera. Also [the album has] this thing about the Wizard of Oz. Because the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tinman are kind of put-together men. The whole thing may seem like Dorothy tripping on what men do to be men. Which I think is a middle-aged kind of pondering a little bit. So that’s all the nature of Hypenated-Man.

In “Pinned-to-the-Table-Man,” where you’re saying, “Be brave, Watt,” is that you talking to yourself or is that supposed to be another character?

That was going to be the only instrumental. I was in Russia with the Stooges and I thought I should use words with every one of these parts. What had happened was, that was one change I came up with — that spiel and hooked it on to there. But I had to make it the middle of the record, ’cause I had taken the middle song, “Wheel-Bound-Man,” and put it on the end. I was going to end the thing with “Man-Shitting-Man,” but it was too down.

Yeah, that one’s heavy.

I kind of got caught up in the Bosch big picture, which I didn’t want to do. I only wanted him to help me with the little stuff. I didn’t like that last judgment, [laughs] but I got caught up in it. So I was in the studio with Tony [Maimone, ex-Pere Ubu bassist who recorded and mixed the album] just ready to finish and I said, Man, Tony, this is wrong. Let’s put the middle one on the end. So those were the two changes I made from how I wrote it. That’s trippy you picked up on that. I never used the word “I” until the very end. There’s one place in the beginning where I use “I” in quotes but the whole thing is supposed to be me thinking out loud and confronting myself. Without being too much of a drama queen. [Laughs] No, it’s existential. It’s getting back to that again. Yeah, yeah. I think it’s ok to ask these kinds of questions. There’s some shit I can’t reconcile like “Man-Shitting-Man.” Humans can be very fucked up with each other. Another thing …there comes — a peace, a weird harmony. You can figure out and not be co-opted or be deluded. I think that’s part of the journey of a life. The middle years are trippy. That’s why I wanted to write about it. I never really thought about them when I was a youngin’.

Was it a challenge going back to writing short songs after not doing it for awhile?

Yeah, yeah, it was. I did it on D. Boon’s Telecaster. I was a little afraid. I normally write the bass second. You know…sometimes you just don’t want to do it easy. Like most times! It’s a hard fucker to play in front of people there’s a lot of stuff to remember. It’s like one big baby with all these things. But it’s okay. I can look in the mirror and say, “Yeah, Watt, you’re still learning how to be a bass player.”

You put Hyphenated-Man out yourself, right? [It’s on the Clenchedwrench label.]

That’s right.

First time since the New Alliance days? [The label that he created during the Minutemen, which also released Husker Du’s Land Speed Record.]

Exactly. You know it, Mike. I got a lot of projects in the pipeline and I figure they’re going to come every couple of months. I won’t have to do any kind of dance. It’ll happen ’cause I want it to happen like in the old days. The more things change the more they stay the same sometimes.

You mean with record labels?

Yeah and the internet. Big labels don’t really mean that much really. They don’t mean anything.

So was your deal with Columbia up?

Yeah, after the second opera. You can’t do 12 or 13 things in the pipeline. You’ve gotta do one thing every couple of years. And…I might not have enough time. [Laughs] That’s another thing about the middle years – a little more earnest.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Weekend of Rock

Just wrapped up a weekend in rock, with three very different definitions therein. Friday night, the Harlan Twins played at the Thunderbird Cafe. A few other bands played too but I just barely made it to see these guys, due to an ill, slightly shaken up child.

The Harlans are in a transition period, having lost original bassist Jules several months ago, and keyboardist Paul more recently. Both of those guys have big personalities and chops to match so it's safe to say they have big shows to fill. Rob, the new bass player, is clearly a really good musician. (Plus I think he was noodling on a section of "It's About That Time" from In a Silent Way as they were starting.) Greg, the new keyboardist also seems like he's a really good player, and he sings back-up a good deal too. But at the same time, this lineup is still coming together, and will change again once Neal the drummer flies the coop in a few months. What it all means is that the Harlan Twins put on a really, really good show. I've seen them and had my faith in music and life restored on a couple of occasions. Friday night wasn't one of those nights, but they were still great. Plus, I got to play tambourine on a song.

The next night was the hotly anticipated (by me at least) Question Mark & the Mysterians show at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. Once again, child duty made me fashionably late, and I completely missed the screening of The TAMI Show. I saw it once during high school, at the good old Pittsburgh Filmmakers screening room on Oakland Avenue. (Let me tell ya kid, those were the days.... But that's another story.) So I wasn't too heartbroken about that.

At about 9:20, the curtain opened and Terry Lee was there to introduce the band. It's always interesting to see what a '60s band looks like all these years later. Do they try to maintain their old look? Do they just stop grooming themselves? Do they just look like old guys who just happen to play music? The answer for the Mysterians was a little bit of all of that. Bobby Baldarrama looked the sharpest - in a suit with his ? t-shirt on under his jacket. He was an amazing guitarist too, playing through a little 12-inch speaker and pulling out strong blues licks like they were nothing. Little Frankie Rodriguez looked kind of like a grandpa, plopped down behind a rack with two keyboards, neither of them a Vox Continental or Farfisa. (One was a Korg.) Frank Lugo (bass) looked older, with a buzz cut, but he had a John Entwistle thing going, barely moving but holding up the sound with his instrument. Drummer Robert Martinez had a banner draped over the front of his drum kit so you couldn't see it. After about four songs, I realized you couldn't see the outline of a kick drum underneath it. Add to that the fact that the drums sounded really ... uh, produced, and I gathered that he was probably being electronic drums, aside from his cymbals and snare.

Then, out came Q. Cowboy hat? Check. Shades? Check - Need you ask? Black shiny slacks? Check. Fringed top, opened all the way down the middle, with gold spangles all over it? Sounds crazy, but yep. That was him. On a lesser person, it'd look like some sort of Vegas get-up, but Q made it work.

And work he did. He worked the crowd up. He got the band working, turning out pretty solid grooves. And he danced. Every song ended with him at the front of the stage, arms aloft.

The thing that messed up the show for a lot of people wasn't the shaky ground in covers like "Be My Baby," where the band wasn't sure which vamp to play. It was the damn strobe light at the back of the stage, which the band's manager was regularly walking backstage to program. That's right, walking back there in plain site, and turning the four-panel light on for some dizzying effect. Maybe fans had better constitutions in the '60s, but everyone I talked to hated that. No wonder Q always wears shades.

The Mysterians took it down a notch with a version of "That's How Strong My Love Is" and it proved that Q knows his way around a ballad. This one was going to be on their third album, which was never released (and included backing vocals by the Raylettes). By and large the best moments of the set came during songs from their original albums. Along with "Be My Baby," "Stand By Me" didn't come off too well, mainly because the drum fills were more hard rock than soul.

When it came time for "96 Tears," everyone in the audience stood. And during a slight reprise as an encore, it could've been a new song, since it sounded so tight.


Sunday night, Mike Watt sold out the Brillobox. In a way, that shouldn't be too surprising since he's been at it for so long, and there are tons of guys who will walk up to him and gush, before and after the show.

He played his new rock opera in its entirety, Hyphenated Man, all 30 songs of it. And it does indeed have the feel of a Minutemen set, all taut and kind of funky, with a little bit of scratchy guitar and divebombing bass. But it's not a throwback. It's just digging into the same thought process.

I'm thinking of posting the entire interview I did with Watt for City Paper since only 250 words of it got into the article. (I need to post a link to the Question Mark article as well.) The bass man had some pretty illuminating thoughts on his career as a musician and his ability to keep it going now.

Back to the show. There's something to be said for playing the same set, night after night. It makes your band incredibly tight. You get comfortable with the music, comfortable with each other, so when you're in a new room, you can just plow ahead and know that everyone's in it together. And Watt and the Missing Men did that on Sunday. Rarely can a guy keep a whole room of people quiet, and he did that during the spoken intro to "Pinned to the Table Man." We all stood there in rapt attention. There wasn't even some loudmouth joker who felt the need to chime in.

Encores: Red Krayola's "The Conspirators," the Pop Group's "Amnesty Report" (they were a big influence on Watt, who covered "We Are Time" on a previous tour), both sung by guitarist Tom Watson (once a member of Slovenly). Plus a slew of Minutemen tunes, done right. "Toadies," "Black Sheep," "The Glory of Man" (with Tom dancing like D. Boon during the drum break) and "Anxious Mo-Fo" with Watt taking vocals back from Tom, who did the others. The last one had a great dynamics drop for the guitar solo. Quiet as a mouse.

After all that, I had to stay home last night.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Charlie Parker Never Gets Old

Last week I lucked into a used copy of the Charlie Parker 8-disc set that combines everything he recorded for Savoy and Dial, along with a few stray other records (like one non-Dean Benedetti amatuer performance at a party). I own some of these sides on vinyl already - the double-album Savoy masters and a double set overview of the Dial sessions. I've always been on the lookout for the set of alternates of Savoy, which I think is called Encores. But really, I needed to have this set.

In this format.

Oddly enough, I feel like I know the Verve stuff better than I know these ones.Some of those later Verve sessions have career-defining tracks, like "Confirmation," "Kim" and "Au Privave." But he was really in his prime from 1944-48, the scope of this box set. Bebop was really starting to congeal at that point, and by presenting the sessions in chronological order - where the catalogs of both labels overlap - you get a good feel for how it happened.

And the booklet - surprise! - offers some really good insight into that. First, there's the whole existential angle: Part of the reason that Bird wrote these songs over the changes of popular songs had as much to do with his creativity as it had to do with the label guys not wanting to pay royalties to Gershwin and Jerome Kern for their songs. It also points out how his quintet with Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter and Max Roach sounded so solid because they actually spent a lot of time playing together, mostly on the road. Not to downplay the greatness of the "Relaxin' at Camarillo" session which features Dodo Mamarosa, but the quintet session feels like they are on a similar, if not the same, wavelength.

I still have about one and a half CDs to get through of the set and I'm still not tired of hearing Parker blow over blues changes or "I Got Rhythm" changes. I'm even digging all the alternate takes. He always has something new to say each time. I realize I'm not saying something that hasn't been said before umpteen times. But I think his unique creative sense, coupled with the format in which he recorded all of these songs - which was limited to about three minutes so it'd fit on a 78 - makes it easier to get into four takes of "Constellation," while four takes of Wynton Kelly playing a six-minute song on a Mosaic set feels excessive.

While reading the booklet I had to wonder if it's possible to trace Bird's life - at least down to a weekly level - between all of the professional recordings he made, coupled with all the non-legitimate ones too. There are so many albums of him playing with pick-up bands in different cities too. So it'd be interesting to try. I'm not ready to invest in the Benedetti set, though.

Unless it turns up used.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Formatting is Everything

Jiminy crap, I've just spent the last 30 minutes re-formatting the last two CD reviews. I can't tell if I learned something or if I'm just frustrated with it all. I'm listening to the Charlie Parker Savoy/Dial set right now. I kind of don't like hearing it all float by as I listen with half an ear.

CD Review - Endangered Blood

Endangered Blood

Little did this writer know that Skirl, the label whose CDs come in an oversized, 5"X8" soft-cover sleeves with designs by Karlssonwilkner, is run by saxophonist Chris Speed. The label has released several impressive albums, including Ches Smith's These Arches (see my 11/24/10 entry), Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone and drummer Ben Perowsky. Endangered Blood features the horn and compositions of the label boss in the company of drummer Jim Black (his co-hort from different projects including Tim Berne's Bloodcount), bassist Trevor Dunn (John Zorn, Mr. Bungle) and alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Oscar Noriega (Berne's new Los Totopos, Lee Konitz).

It's the kind of album that sounds infectious from the start, even as it uses the sense of adventure that these guys always display. Speed and Noriega play in unison in "Plunge," and the melody sounds something that wouldn't have been out of place on a '50s West Coast session, or something by Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. Underneath them, Dunn plays the 7/4 rhythm, which nevertheless turns into a funky, double-stop groove. In a clever move between sax solos, Dunn takes a solo and Speed comps behind him, which twists the sound perspective.

The horns-in-rhythm-section thought continues in "Rare," with Noriega's bass clarinet playing the rhythmic arpeggios of the changes in the theme. After that is established, most of the song consists of a thick low-end long tone groove by both horns, that becomes a springboard for a Speed solo which builds with the dynamics without the need to boil over into wails. His sense of economy - not to mention all the writing with the group - makes me feel like I need to keep better track of Speed's activities.

There must be something about Monk's "Epistrophy" that inspires people to play it in 7/8. Ravi Coltrane and Vijay Iyer both did it in the past couple years and Endangered Blood does it here too. This isn't a criticism though, because they take it at a slinky, Monk-like pace with Noriega again on bass clarinet. Plus it gives Black a chance stretch out and swing wildly.

It's tempting to continue going through the album track by track, as each one has plenty of things worth endorsing. But that would make this review too heavy-handed. So an overview is in order. A few songs have unison horn lineslike "Rare," but that never makes things seem pedestrian. The way Speed and Noriega play them seems like that was their plan. The riff of "Elvin Lisbon" sounds like an exercise brought to life by some great Black cracks on the snare. "K" shows they can pull of ballad approach. "Iris" could be a Tin Pan Alley melody, complete with slinky bowed bass. Finally, "Tacos at Oscar's" offers a delicious taste of freedom with Black leading the way.

Endangered Blood - which came together in 2008 as the Benefit Band, to play a benefit for a friend's cancer treatment, which probably accounts for the name - has produced one of the first albums of 2011 that deserves to be remembered on Year End lists. Hopefully I'm not alone in that belief.

But Chris, I know I've said this before but please do something about the point size of the credits.