Saturday, July 23, 2011

CD Review: Muhal Richard Abrams - SoundDance

Muhal Richard Abrams Duos with Fred Anderson & George Lewis

Muhal Richard Abrams played key roles in the early days of the Chicago's free thinking jazz scene where, among other things, he co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). His work might not be as well known outside his city as Anthony Braxton or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but he was recently inducted into the downbeat Hall of Fame and became a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. Plus, he has worked in all sorts of musical formats, so at age 80, calling Abrams a "jazz master" might be something of an understatement.

The two discs in SoundDance bring together two duo performances at AACM Concerts in New York with two of Abrams' Chicago comrades, creating two vastly different and equally challenging performances. "Engrossing" is another word to use when describing them as well.

Abrams teamed up with tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson in October 2009, in what is considered to be one of the saxophonist's final performances before his death. The rapport between them pushes and pulls, never letting either one, or the listener, lapse into anything easy. "Focus, ThruTime...Time" is divided into four tracks, breaking only when the mood shifts. Part 1 contains some fast chases, which leads into some slower, almost call and response sections in Part 2 where both listen attentively to each other, and really lock into an idea around the six minute mark.

What makes the music rewarding is how neither player fits into a certain stylistic box. Anderson is not a reed-biting free blower, nor does he attempt to wrench strong melodic playing into this format. Part 3 starts out sounding like he's borrowing intervals from "Giant Steps" but the overall piece feels even closer to a ballad, thanks to Abrams, who works just as easily in a sensitive mood as he does when makes ominous rumbles at the bottom of the piano.

"SoundDance," the 45-minute performance with George Lewis (trombone, laptop) requires a bit more of an open mind, especially in the early stages where silence is as much a part of the music as the spare, ringing chords that Abrams leaves hanging in the air. It's the kind of trick that makes you crank up the volume knob, only to run back a few moments later to turn it down when Lewis enters with a forthright trombone blast. (This assumes most listeners will check this out via CDs, rather than downloads, in which case, the earbuds should beware.) While listening to Part 1, sirens went down my street, lasting as long as any of Lewis' and Abrams' brief emanations, and fitting in just fine.

Throughout the disc, Lewis confounds the ears by using his laptop to create a third voice in the setting, sometimes sounding like bowed bass noises, other times recreating old school synthisizer bloops. He even sneaks into a mutant blend of drums and tuned bowls. By the final 17-minute section of the piece, he has picked up the plunger mute and the piano rumbles have developed fully. The suspense of the early stages have paid off by developing into something with substantial, sonically and melodically.

It's a challenge to pick up on all of this, but of course Muhal Richard Abrams didn't get to where he is simply paying homage to his role models.

[2014 addendum: I don't know what the keyword is in this review, but this page has become the target of spammers. So comments have been disabled.]

Thursday, July 21, 2011

CD Review - Inzinzac


This album has one of the most unsettling cover images to be seen on a jazz album in ages. There's probably a questionable cover from CTI's '70s catalog that compares. Stanley Turrentine's Sugar, with the silhouette of a foot being licked was a bit racy, but it doesn't compare to this: a smaller chimpanzee standing on the chest of a bigger chimp, and choking it. The fact that these monks are apparently man-made sculptures only adds to the uncomfortable quality.

Inzinzac's music also feels a bit unsettling, but this Philadelphia trio are far from being simply a wild, bassless group of improvisers. They definitely let go and run wild in many places throughout their eight-song debut, but they also rock pretty hard within their tightly built compositions.

Guitarist Alban Bailly, a French transplant to the U.S., writes all the tunes and plays with a tone that isn't quite as brittle as Marc Ribot, but still has that sharp, trebly attack. He also sounds like the bass tone on his amp is cranked up to fill in the sound. (At least my speakers said as much.) "71" has a stop-start/staccato feel to it but drummer Eli Litwin gives it a solid beat that keeps it driving. His background in metal is put to good use throughout the album, as he knows when to hold things together and when to let them implode. (He also plays in the improv group Normal Love and he has a solo project called Intensus.) "Chapi Chapo" begins by rocking hard on an art rock riff before it falls into a free break, complete with drum rolls, tenor sax overtones and guitar plinks.

Dan Scofield alternates between soprano and tenor with nearly every track. His smaller horn sounds fairly muscular during an unaccompanied section in "Otis," as well as "Lemurien," where it goes from quiet to loud, finally settling on a theme that sounds like a deranged Irish jig.

Although guitar/saxophone/drums groups can't really be called common, there is often a certain attack that bands with this instrumentation have, with chaos and gruffness being the order of the day. Inzinzac possesses a strong, wild streak but it doesn't take long to realize they have a great deal of clarity in how they present themselves. And once you get past that nasty front cover, this is one of the more impressive debuts of the year.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Up to my ears in crates

On Saturday night around 11 p.m., 50 crates of records showed up at my house. Not mysteriously. Oh no, there was fanfare and anticipation. In fact, I screwed up and was expecting them the night before because I was a knucklehead who didn't read the email correctly until after I had sent my friends home, the ones who said they'd help unload them.

Anyhow, my wife's former boss brought them to me from Buffalo where they used to belong to her uncle. She said I could have them if I paid for the cost of hauling them and if I had at least three able-bodied people to help me unload them.

Before you go pounding on my door or sniffing around the yard, trying to detect what kind of albums there are, I'll tell ya this: there is a lot that I and you can't use. Not only polka albums but regional ones. There's some cache with stuff like that but when you've got all these crates sitting around you, the whole thing gets overwhelming and you just want what you know because I know I'm never going to have the party where I had the opportunity to say, "Hey, I know just what we should listen to," and whip out that polka album.

Although, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure there was a copy of the Jimmy Sturr album they used to advertise on tv in the '70s, which had all the big polka classics, including "No Beer in Heaven," which I would like to hear. Once.

Along with the piles of records, there's something else that's permeating the house: the smell of must. I immediately threw out a crate Saturday night and three more the next night, when I saw records covered in black mold. There's very little reason for Bread or the Lettermen to be in this house anyway, and if they have mold on them - out the window they go. We had a really heavy rain last night too, so they got even soggier than they were when they got here.

There is a lot of classical music in the collection too. I'm hoping to find out if any of that has any resale value or if it's strictly Goodwill bound. Beyond that, there are a few intriguing soundtracks. And quite a bit of Jerry Vale. The Jack Jones album with "Wives and Lovers" on it is there too, but I think I prefer to just randomly hear that tasteless song on WJAS rather than have it in the collection.

The first - and so far only - thing that I pulled from the collection and threw on the turntable was something from my youth: Dino, Desi & Billy's I'm a Fool. This might've been one of those albums that my aunt Mary found for me at the Mary S. Brown church flea market when I was about 6 (along with Question Mark, Sam the Sham, Dave Clark 5, Tom Jones and others that escape me right now). It was my first exposure to the sound of a 12-string guitar, which I loved though at the time I didn't know what it was. I was too young to realize how hokey it was that these kids were singing "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Satisfaction" or that they're attempts at replicating Roger McGuinn was to sound really whiney. But I dug that line about "I can't GET no," and couldn't read the last word in that song title.

The song I really wanted to hear was "The Rebel Kind," which Lee Hazelwood wrote for them. It was really fuzzy and garagey and it's their anthem to being non-conformist. Yeah, right. You're the sons of Dean Martin and Desi Arnez, and Frank Sinatra signed you after hearing you practice at Dean's house, and you're trying to tell me you're rebels? Come onnnnn. Hell, that's probably not even Billy playing that fuzzy guitar. I'll bet it's Al Casey.

Friday, July 08, 2011

CD Review - Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord - Quavers! Quavers! Quavers! Quavers!

Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord
Quavers! Quavers! Quavers! Quavers!
(Hot Cup)

If the title doesn't offer any indication, Jon Lundbom seems to have picked up on some of the zaniness that is part and parcel with another project by his bandmates. This refers specifically, to saxophonist Jon Irabagon and bassist Moppa Elliot, who play in Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Lundbom and Big Five Chord released the excellent Accomplish Jazz in 2009, framed by the guitarist/leader's strong compositions (along with a Louvin Brothers cover) and country tone, cavorting with some occasionally wild blowing. Quavers! starts on the wild side and stays there, and although it might not be as rewarding immediately as its predecessor, there's still plenty to dig with each listen.

Lundbom's guitar introduces itself by sounding like John McLaughlin under water in the descending riff of "On Jacation." (It's actually the sound of his instrument going through two rotating Leslie speakers.) He continues to play through the descending riff as Irabagon (on alto) and Bryan Murray (tenor saxophone) take turns soloing. It's a nice raunchy sound and it makes his solo a welcome relief from the comping, which gets a little repetitive after awhile. As he did on several songs on his last album, Lundbom ends this and all the album's tunes without repeating the head. It's a good way to make sure you pay attention, and leaves a stronger impression of the soloists.

"The Bravest Little Pilot No. 2" adds electric pianist Matt Kanelos to the soundscape, giving the music some more atmosphere. This time Irabagon pushes the aggression button since he takes great pleasure in returning to one buzzing note on his horn throughout his chopped up solo. In "Faith-Based Initiative" he switches to sopranino, which he plays with astounding speed, collapsing into a pile of wheezing and skronk only after he explores every possible nuance of the little horn. Ironically this tune starts off with a theme closer to swing, thanks to drummer Danny Fischer.

On the subject of unusual horns, Murray is credited with playing the "balto!" (exclamation point included) on "Meat Without Feat." The credits don't offer much insight into exactly what the instrument is, but the instrument that sounds like a tenor in this emits some nice raspy growls, somewhat like vintage Archie Shepp, and it adds to the song's funky vamp and theme of long tones. Ironically, Lundbom's solo doesn't catch fire here because he limits himself to one range of the guitar.

Big Five Chord isn't afraid to go for the throat if the music calls for it, even if it means that Irabagon pulls out the MOPDtK trick of ending a solo by sitting on a "wrong" note and holding it. But this is high energy music, combining somewhat straight ahead foundations with a rock execution, and hopefully Lundbom will start getting more attention for his fresh perspective, both as a writer and player.

(For a review of the last Big Five Chord album, see my entry from March 10, 2010.)

Due to the overwhelming number of spam posts that appear on this page, I'm dismantling the comments section. I don't know what phrase draws so many spammers.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

More writing in other places

Yesterday morning, I forgot to include my review of Jackie-O Motherfucker's latest album in my set of recently published pieces. It's here on the Blurt website.

Today, they ran my White Hills album review. After hearing the album, I kind of wish I had checked them out when they came here a month or two ago.

Finally, it is with great pride that I offer you a link to a story called "outstanding " by the editor of Blurt, himself. Yes, I'm talking about my R. Stevie Moore article that I just finished a night or two ago. Or was it the wee hours of the a.m.

Right now I could go for some booze.

Maybe I will.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

CD Review: Alexander Tucker - Dorwytch

Alexander Tucker
(Thrill Jockey)

With its press release dropping phrases like "chamber pop" and references to Brian Eno, Dorwytch seemed like it was right up my alley, like a possible combination of brainy hooks and maybe something reminiscent of Here Come the Warm Jets. But when the disc started playing, I wondered if I had gotten ahold of the wrong album. "His Arm Has Grown Long" sports a sea of churning cellos, sawing away on one chord, with counter-melodies layered over them. These are definitely rock cellos, and they go for a whole minute before Alexander Tucker's voice enters the picture.

The initial impact requires a shift of gears. This isn't the Ladybug Transistor's chamber pop. In fact, "pop" doesn't really seem like the appropriate descriptor.

Tucker, who has recorded in a tape loop project called Imbogodom, might have more connections with English art rock of the '70s as well as more traditional folk music. He seems adept at disguising instruments in order to make the whole song seem like the object of interest. "Red String" features more of the folk approach, with breaks that could either be more cellos or acoustic guitars. Either way, they're reminiscent of some of the textures on The White Album and they push away any predisposed ideas about this music and lure you into Tucker's strange world.

His tenor voice comes through clearly but often times the lyrics are secondary to the overall flow of the music. The cellos are occasionally plucked for contrast and a couple songs use synths to create a pulse and a bass line. A drone that forms the basis of "Atomized" could either be crickets or an organ. In "Jamie" he challenges listeners to figure out if he's singing a wordless vocal or if the melody comes from some hard-to-decipher instrument, soaring over a lush loop of backwards guitar loops that indeed evokes ambient Eno.

Dorwytch was recorded over three years, which can help to account for the diversity in arrangements. It might also explain the album's weakness: Many of the songs have very similar basic foundations. At least two other tracks follow a riff similar to "His Arm Has Grown Long" which might not be so noticeable if Tucker threw in a chord change here and there. After the success of "Jamie," which climaxes in a mix of feedback and scraping strings, "Craters" uses the same one-note rhythm as a pedal point for a set of piano chords. Initially catchy, it gets to be a little much after 4:39. It closes the album on a somewhat odd note, albeit one that begs reexamination at a later time.

Here's what I've been doing

Yeseterday, I finally finished and submitted an article about R. Stevie Moore to Blurt. It took a little bit of doing because I also spoke to Jon Demiglio, who is making a documentary about Stevie, and who is acting as a de facto tour manager for him. He was a really nice guy and I sincerely hope that he and Stevie (and the band, of course) do well over the course of the tour. I don't think I used any of the same quotes in this article that I did in the one I wrote for City Paper. Stevie's good that way - a lot to say.

Oh, wait. I did re-use the one where he describes himself as looking like "goddam Santa Claus." You can't help but reuse that.

Before I concentrated on that article, I reviewed White Hills' new album H-p1 and revised my story on Trotsky Icepick, both for Blurt. (Both of these pieces have yet to run.) The week prior to that, I was working on a preview of the Ladybug Transistor for City Paper which can be found right here. Scroll to the end of that, and there's a quickie on Bill Callahan too.
Now that those things are all done, I intend to get back on the blog horse and fill up this space with writing. In the meantime, the Love Letters have a show at Arsenal Lanes tonight. And I have to acquire review copies of a few new CDs for Blurt. Gonna start doing that now.