Saturday, May 28, 2011

Will the funeral be televised? Gil Scott-Heron RIP

Playing right now: Kirk Knuffke & Jesse Stacken - Orange Was the Color (SteepleChase) Last night as I was brushing my teeth, I had WJAS on in the bathroom and the CNN top-of-the--hour news came on. That's not the place you expect to hear this, but the final story was that Gil Scott-Heron died yesterday. "He was best known for his song 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.'" I wonder how many insomniac WJAS listeners know the piece, which might actually be considered a poem (and the newscaster might've actually said that. I can't remember). Kudos to that white bread news station for mentioning that. And Gil, may you finally find some peace. Thanks for what you created when you were here, too. You were so gifted and articulate from an early age. In high school, my friend Freya lent me a copy of Small Talk at 125th and Lenox Avenue which had the first version of "Revolution," accompanied only by conga drums. He was 20 goddam years old and already extremely deep and moving. Last year the New Yorker ran a great and rather lengthy piece on him. He was either on the mend from a crack addiction or still dealing with it, and his mind was still sharp and focused. Many people have riffed on the "revolution will not be televised" idea since then, saying that of course it will be televised because of the way mass media works these days. There will be extensive coverage and the history will be written before it happens. But the thing to remember is something that I saw Gil say on a PBS special about 20 years ago: What he meant was that the revolution was going to start "up here" [pointing to his head], which I take to mean you have to start with an idea and that the coverage is all secondary to that. Speaking of people who are still pretty sharp, Lee "Scratch" Perry has a new album out and here is my review of it from Blurt. I also reviewed the new album by Helado Negro right here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Recent articles in other publications

Since my posts have been limited to about one a week lately, here are links to things I've been writing elsewhere. I filed a couple reviews with Blurt recently. Here's a review of the new Let's Wrestle album on Merge. Here's a new one by saxophonist Matana Roberts.

I just went to the JazzTimes website and my review of the Billy Bang/Bill Cole CD was featured on the first page as one of the teasers. If you scroll down to the bottom right of the page, you can see links to other things I've written for them recently. Here's a link to the latest Matthew Shipp album. Check out the rest on the page. Incidentally I saw on the main page that Bob Flanagan, the last surviving original member of the Four Freshman has died. Sigh. Bob, I don't know where my family would be without you. (True story. My folks were Freshman fans and two guys from the group actually showed up at a party at my Mom's house back in the day.)

See I have been writing. Now I should review that Lee "Scratch" Perry CD.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Beatles take a hack song and make it better

I have this scenario in my mind that from 1963 to sometime in 1965, Brian Epstein or one of his mates that was close to the Beatles (Mal Evans, Derek Taylor) would lock John Lennon and Paul McCartney in a room, maybe with some speed or coffee as well as guitars, and say, "Lads, we need six new songs for the session tomorrow, right? The door will open when you've written them." There was plenty of pressure on them to produce in those early days. A lot of the early songs seem rather tossed off bits of fluff, but even in those throwaways, the Beatles managed to inject some catchy element that helped them rise above the slag heap of assembly line pop music from that era.

Last night I pulled out the UK version of A Hard Day's Night and listened to side two. For those who only know the CD version, this refers to the songs that did not appear in the film, which all follow "Can't Buy Me Love." Most of them are pretty simple fair, and maybe not the strongest in the Beatle catalog, but they're all pretty good.

"Anytime At All" rides on the strength of John's vocals: the passionate delivery in the chorus - not to mention the clever idea of Paul singing the higher second line and nothing else - and the way his voice drops down an octave in the version. Ringo really seems to be drive the band in the verses too. I don't think they ever played this song live but I can only imagine how strong it could have sounded if they really worked it out. This song was going through my head yesterday evening, which inspired me to put the record on in the first place.

"I'll Cry Instead" has very little not working in its favor. George's guitar line provides an excellent foundation, especially with that twangy response to the second line of each verse. Great extra percussion too - good ol' Ringo. The only thing that could be considered dubious is the line, "I've got a chip on my shoulder that's bigger than my feet." After the half-baked lines in "Anytime At All" ("There is nothing Iiiiiii won't do") at least this one has some wacky imagery to go with it.

"Things We Said Today" doesn't really qualify as assembly-line Beatles. This is one of Paul's strongest songs from that period, methinks. For a song played on acoustic guitars, this one's bridge really rocks. That way it descends so smoothly back into the verse after the middle eight reveals one of the reasons these guys could make a simple song so memorable. It's almost like a jazz hook, which they were hip to. They knew all about augmented chords and whether they got it from a Mel Bay book or from jazz records - probably the former - they knew how to incorporate it.

I always disliked "When I Get Home" until I read that John was trying to channel Wilson Pickett with it. Suddenly those "woah-ah woah IIIIIIIIII"s made more sense. The guitars in the verses because they slash hard on those 7th chords, and Paul goes down low on his bass which gives it something of a funk. That doesn't excuse the line "I'm gonna love her 'till the cows come" but it makes the whole song a little more listenable.

The side of the record ends with two songs that really shouldn't be considered in the assembly-line discussion, even if they came together that way. "You Can't Do That," as my wife has said a couple times, is like the Beatles in drag doing their best Shirelles for the accompanying vocals. Ringo again gives it extra punch with the cowbell. Also, I just noticed last night that the bridge doesn't rhyme in the traditional sense. "Green" and "seen" do, but they're in the middle of the line. Brillant, John, positively brilliant.

If you think too hard about how John borrowed Del Shannon's "Runaway" and turned it into "I'll Be Back," it can put a damper on the song. So don't. Besides, he tried to make it a waltz at first, as Anthology One proved, before realizing that he should play it natural. Those three-part harmonies are impeccable and it shows what playing together for - what was it at this point, five years? - can do for an act. The way John phrased the middle eight, not to mention the lyrical punch of it, also shows that he could toss off great ideas like they were nothing. I've always loved the major-to-minor switch that they pluck on the acoustic during the fade.

Several years ago while working at Pulp I got into a discussion with an intern about this very subject with the Beatles. She thought "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You" was written strictly to cash in on the teeny bopper crowd. She was right about it being a dumb song, but it does have a great major-minor chord change as the song moves on. And if they had only written better words for it, it could have been a lot better. As it stands, those "ahhhh oh"s are still pretty catchy.

More recently (well, maybe about two years ago), I ran into Celanie, the former intern, and she remembered having that talk where I explained how the Beatles weren't hacks. I had completely forgotten about it until she brought it up. But it was nice knowing that there was some info in all my hot air.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

CD Review: Honey Ear Trio - Steampunk Serenade

Honey Ear Trio
Steampunk Serenade

The trio of Allison Miller (drums), Erik Lawrence (saxophones) and Rene Hart (bass) came together literally through the work of nature. When a volcano in Iceland erupted in April 2010, it prevented Miller (one of the busiest drummer in all music, not just jazz) from getting to a tour in Europe. She stitched some silver lining to those ash covered clouds and got her trio mates together for several weeks of practicing that lead up to these recordings. They have all worked together with trumpeter Steven Bernstein and keyboardist John Medeski. Individually, Miller has played with Marty Ehrlich, Natalie Merchant and Brandi Carlile; Hart has played bass with Branford Marsalis; and Lawrence has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Sonny Sharrock.

All that name dropping isn't excessive in this case since it reveals how wide the trio's scope of sound can be, and that is clear in the 13 tracks on Steampunk Serenade. It opens with "Matter of Time," a slow, big tenor ballad that evokes Sonny Rollins' trio work, or maybe even his predecessors like Ben Webster, thanks to Lawrence's big tone. Immediately after that, Miller's "Olney 60/30" takes the mood in a more frenetic direction. Hart's electronics in this track give his double-stops more of a distorted attack, while Lawrence - now on alto - seems at the brink of hysteria, prodded to Miller's skittery playing. This close-to-but-never-totally-boiling-over feeling works perfectly.

Miller gets that wild pulse going again in the coda of "Whistle Stop" but the group explores other avenues too. The title track begins with some dub-like loops before it settles into a vamp with Miller playing on the rims and constantly turning the downbeat on its ear. Hart's electronics and loops add strange, fourth member feelings to many tracks, the most unique being their take on "Over the Rainbow," where the melody actually moves in reverse until it comes to the bridge. By switching to baritone sax, Lawrence does his part to make this one of the most warped - and successful - facelifts of a song that gets ravaged too often. One of the tracks written by someone outside the trio comes from saxophonist Lisa Parrott, who has played with Miller and with DIVA. Her "Six Nettes" throws the band into a straight ahead, almost bop bag with a catchy call-and-response line that recalls Thelonious Monk's "Criss Cross." True to their methods, though, this ain't no ordinary bop and the trio pulls and twists the tempo as proof.

Lawrence pays homage to the volcano that made this session possible with "Eyjafjallajokull (Icelandic Volcano Hymn)" which sounds as reverant as its title, with the alto taking on more of a dusty quality. When looking at the consistant quality of this work, it was good to make such a gesture.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Vijay Iyer takes Pittsburgh

Vijay Iyer came to the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild last Friday and after his first show, I felt like I was ready to start a religion around the guy. That sounds a little extreme, but his performance was really that good, especially in light of the fact that, during his second show, he was playing on a piano with a broken string, giving the E-flat a certain buzz like a gamelan.

Traffic was absolutely ridiculous on the way to the North Side and we didn't get there until close to 7:30, half an hour after the first act started playing. (I found out later, all the back-ups were attributed to the NRA convention, a show at Stage AE and the general detours from the 31st Street Bridge closing). That was alright because the first group was fairly lightweight. Not bad musicians by any means but they were all about respect for the canon with little about putting forth an individual voice, except for the tenor player.

Iyer, on the other hand, had one of those magical touches that spoke legions with the way he played the first three notes, all very thoughtful and pensive. (He once wrote an essay for The Wire about a three-note combination that Cecil Taylor often used that sounded perfect in its simplicity. Methinks Iyer must have picked up on that idea.) He opened with "Helix" that begins sounding very wide open. Bassist Stephen Crump sounds very powerful on disc, so it was kind of off-putting at first to see his whole body really shake with every gentle note he played. It was the total opposite of what you expect from that sound. Usually a musician moves like that to make up for the lack of creativity in their playing. Not Crump. This adds to his playing. Marcus Gilmore also began in a unique way, playing with a brush in one hand and a mallet in the other. Throughout the night, he dropped a couple of sticks, but it didn't spoil the quality of his performance. In fact, he played with one stick for about two minutes in "Somewhere."

The second song sounded like a funk tune, and Iyer started playing reggae dub echo effects with the way he hit the notes. Yes, he was recreating a studio trick in real time. Ironically, this slice of funk and dub was a Bud Powell tune, "Coming Up."

One of the most impressive things about the group was how they could take an idea and build on it, even if it was simple progression of just a chord or two, and they developed in ways that didn't seem to rely on typical methods, like simply shifting dynamics or riffing. In fact, as far as riffing goes, they often seemed to get wobbly in terms of where the beats fell - but never in a way that put the music in danger of falling apart. Time was really elastic for them. Then it hit me that this might've been something that Iyer picked up from Steve Coleman, who really has played with ideas and approaches to rhythm.

The second show opened with that buzzing from the broken string and that set things in the direction of adventure. The opening piece began very freely with some wild bowed bass and flowing movement from the trio. Iyer also mixed up the set list a great deal, instead of just repeating what he played in the first show. They played a moving version of "Abundance," which he recorded with another group (guitarist Prasanna and tablaist Nitin Mitta on Tirtha), as well as Michael Jackson's "Human Nature," which he recorded on Solo last year, and which really went all over the place, he later explained, because of the string problem.

I was also happy to hear Andrew Hill's "Smoke Stack" another tune from Historicity because Iyer played the theme so rapidly and because the piano gets a little lost in the original since Hill used two bass players at that session, which made it a little muddled.

The second show didn't wrap up until about midnight, or a little after. I went home exhaused that night. Happy, but beat.