Saturday, August 27, 2011

Free to Be... You and Me: Next Generation

A few nights ago, Donovan was in his bed, not going to sleep right away, but singing happily as he often does. Usually his song choices include "London Bridge," "Skip to My Lou" (sometimes with new words) or the blessing he learned at summer camp.

But on this particular night, I heard something way different. He was singing the chorus of a song from Free To Be... You and Me. I don't normally disturb this bedtime ritual, but I went upstairs and asked what he was singing. He was coy as usual. When I mentioned the song "Glad to Have a Friend Like You," he nodded.

"I have that song on a record downstairs."

"I would like to hear it."

It became clear that he learned the song at Waldorf and not from a secret excursion into the record stacks. But gee whiz, it blows the mind to hear your kid singing a song that you've thought you'd turn him on to, some day in the future. Free to Be... You and Me was a big album in our house. Actually, my mother got the book first for me and my sister. Then we used to check the album out of the library all the time. "My Dog is a Plumber" is a simple poem about a serious subject that can really get young minds to think with humor. Rosey Grier's calming philosophy that "It's Alright To Cry" make me do just that in appreciation.

The next morning, as he was having a waffle, I played "Glad to Have a Friend Like You" for Donovan. He seemed quietly entertained. I got choked up because I'm a sap and felt like we were bonding a bit. Pressing my luck I played him "My Dog is a Plumber." (Dick Cavett was the perfect person to read this, by the way.) He was more interested in knowing who the dog was that barked in the background.

I took a chance on thinking that he'd like Carol Channing's recitation of "Housework," with its rapid list of cleaners that keep popping up in the text. He left the room.

Save that for next year.

CD Review - Steve Coleman and Five Elements - The Mancy of Sound

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
The Mancy of Sound

Steve Coleman's Harvest Semblances and Affinities was one of last year's most complex and spellbinding releases, but The Mancy of Sound might be an even stronger set. Once again the alto saxophonist has created compositions with the inspiration of a non-musical sources - in this case, the philosophical system of West Africa's Yoruba, which is represented by a series of dots (in the four-part "Odu Ifa" suite). Two pieces ("Jan. 18" and "Noctiluca (Jan. 11)") are also based on eight lunar phases "as viewed from a specific place at a specific time." The eight musicians in the band frequently sound like they're operating on their own musical plains but the music comes together without sounding crowded or too ambitious.

Drummer Tyshawn Sorey is joined this time by fellow trap player Marcus Gilmore and percussionist Ramon Garcia Perez. The three blend together to the point that it's more of a challenge to try and single out Sorey and Gilmore than to just follow the music. Perez chants on some of the "Odu Ifa" movements, creating overlapping voices and rhythms in "Earth-Idi" and doing what sound like comments on vocalist Jen Shyu's performance "Water-Oyeku."

Shyu continues to evolve as a performer, her voice fully integrated into the blend of horns on an equal level. In the past, she sounded like she was just singing wordless lines, but this time clear English lyrics come to the surface the lunar tracks, including such observations as "Nature calls for progression." The line that closes the album - "None should overflow" - could refer to either the swirl of the music or something nature-based. Either way, it will hopefully inspire Coleman to include a lyric sheet in future releases.

The leader's own performance places his unique alto in the ensemble just as often, if not more, than it does in a solo spotlight. Three minutes into "Jan. 18" he emits some fast, short phrases that are pure Coleman. "Formation 1" and "Formation 2" both jettison the rhythm section for recreations of a piece originally written for saxophone and orchestra. It gets busy once trumpet and trombone (again Jonathan Finlayson and Tim Albright respectively) join him, along with Shyu, but no one ever gets lost.

The Mancy of Sound is one of those albums where the John Coltrane approach to album listening is probably best utilized: focus solely on the saxophone one time, trombone the second, etc. That's not an academic way of listening, but a way to fully appreciate some heavy music.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Big show of October

I found out this week that the Warhol Museum is bringing Starlicker to town. That's the trio of Rob Mazurek, Jason Adasiewicz and John Herndon, all three heavyweights on the Chicago jazz scene. Rob leads a number of groups, including the Exploding Star Orchestra and Chicago Underground Duo. Do a search of Jason's name on this sight and you'll find out all about him. (The New York Times recently wrote about him too.) John also plays in a number of bands, including one called Tortoise.

If this show wasn't cool enough, it's happening the day after my birthday, October 8. And I ran into Ben Opie a few days ago, who told me his new project is debuting ON my birthday. That's going to be a crazy week because I have to go out of town for work on the 5th and 6th.

It'll be worth it since I'm seeing Starlicker.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

CD Review: Allen Lowe - Blues and the Empirical Truth

Allen Lowe
Blues and the Empirical Truth
(Music and Arts)

Ah, music critics. Ask them a yes or no question about an album and you'll get an oratory. Ask for a compilation and you might get... a nine-disc anthology.
That's just what Allen Lowe compiled in the recent past. The descriptively-titled American Pop: An Audio History - From Minstrel to Mojo: On Record 1893-1946 contained nine discs. Then he outdid himself with That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History 1895-1950, which contained a whopping 36 pieces of plastic. And you probably don't believe that much music was even recorded during that period. In addition to compiling the music, Lowe also wrote extensive texts to go along with each of these productions. Some might call it crazy, but it makes Lowe a man after my own heart.

In addition to being an extensive musical commentator ("critic" seems like a limiting word here) Lowe is also a musician himself, another trait to which I can relate and admire. To add a personal note on that subject before I take myself out of this story, I feel a certain a kinship in his alto saxophone playing because his tone reminds me of what I aspired to sound like years ago when I thought I had a future on the horn: a clean tone with raw edges, and a searching quality that's equally ready to blow straight or scream at a moment's notice. (Personally I never got past the aspiration part to the actual execution of such a sound, but that's another story.)

Lowe the musician is gifted on the alto, but also picks up the C-melody and tenor horns, in addition to being extremely fluent on guitar. For his own music project Blues and the Empirical Truth (a witty play on Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth) he has produced no less that three discs of music. One volume lasts 66 minutes while the other two creep close to 80 minutes each. True to his other calling, Lowe offers track by track analysis. Some of this comes in quick phrases or a few sentences. One goes on for a whole paragraph - or is it sentence - which includes a parenthetical statement that on its own could be a short paragraph in itself. The set-up reminds me of philosophy tomes that I read in college. The comparison makes sense since the subject is empirical truth. Besides, music is a more interesting subject that existentialism anyway.

Three discs is a pretty serious listening commitment and speaks to an artist's confidence in his output, but truth be told there's very little filler on this whole set, save for the occasional track that noodles a little with multiple solos happening at once. Lowe is joined by a pretty heavy group of friends including veteran trombonist Roswell Rudd, guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist Matthew Shipp (who also plays Farfisa!) and pianist Lewis Porter, among others. The blues can be a limiting structure, but this is nothing like an attempt to chronicle all the various styles of blues and present them for consumption. Sometimes it feels like a blues set, other times it's a jazz set, and with his references to Richard Hell and the Velvet Underground in his notes, inspirations comes to Lowe from beyond even these immediate sources. Titles like "(Bull Connor Sees) Darkies on the Delta" and "Pauli Murray, at the Back of the Bus, Suddenly Realize She Has the Blues" prove that Lowe also has a handle on the social issues that informed a lot of the music from its earliest days. Out of context - meaning right here - the titles might seem glib, but don't believe it. They come out of empathy or understanding.

More so than my previous description, Lowe's alto playing sounds a bit like Ornette Coleman if the latter had straightened up and flown right. Clear and sometimes plaintive, it also has a combative quality somewhat like Archie Shepp on "Blues and Transfiguration" which has a Mingus mood in the composition. Anyone who can hold his own in a wild exchanges with Rudd really knows his stuff anyway, and "Entrance, No Exit" and the several installments of "Ras Speaks" prove that. They also show Shipp in a very subdued state, holding down chords on an organ with a tone that seems to thin for a heavyweight like him, while the two horns have all the fun. (Although Shipp's volume changes in one gets a little trippy.)

Guitarist Ray Suhy appears frequently throughout the set, with a skillful approach that varies his sound from straight blues to something a little wilder, depending on the setting. Ribot is his usual spiky self, and speaking of that adjective, a gentleman named Spike Sikes also plays alto, which gives Lowe a chance to play his other instruments. His guitar recalls Black Flag's Greg Ginn, a remote comparison true, but both have a tendency to get so manic during a solo that tempo gets overlooked in favor of passion. Maybe it's just my limited blues knowledge showing, but he also plays with the adventurous scope of Zoot Horn Rollo's best moments with Captain Beefheart. (Now there's someone to draft for the next session.)

The only odd element to the whole set is Jake Millet's use of electronic drums. On the first disc, they sound appropriate - sounding like little more than a battered ride cymbal that holds things together. As time goes on, it almost feels like Sunny Murray has dropped by, agreeing not to do his usual thing, but never completely settling into a straight tempo. The decaying sound of the cymbal sounds fun, like a delay pedal was accidentally bumped. But by the last disc, the thin sound has one wondering why a real trap kit wasn't used.

If there's any justice in this world Blues and the Empirical Truth should win an award for its packaging alone. Along with all the music, the three-panel cover includes a booklet not only of Lowe's thoughts (which are equally deep, fiery and humorous), but an introductory essay by Village Voice columnist Francis Davis. Hopefully Lowe doesn't take that as an oversight of the music (like Mingus did when he won Best Liner Notes for Let My Children Hear Music).

But there I go, dropping music trivia like a music scribe who knows too much. This isn't an item designed just for the likes of Lowe and Davis and lower-totem-pole music geek/scribes like me. This is music for people who still get excited about music, and relish the size of packages like this.

Monday, August 15, 2011

CD Review - Aram Bajakian's Kef

Aram Bajakian's Kef

Without a drummer to anchor the tempo, it can be a bit of a challenge to avoid rushing the beat. Factor in some exotic tempos - like weird combinations of beats that add up to 9/8 or 7/8 - and suddenly a whole lot of thinking is required. Guitarist Aram Bajakian's trio Kef features him on electric and acoustic guitars; Shanir Blumenkranz on acoustic and electric basses, oud and gimbri; and Tom Swafford on violin. Their songs have roots in traditional Armenian music but Bajakian spices it up with some searing modern and post-modern rock, which makes the trio kick out some serious jams. Not once do they fumble through a dizzying melody or rush the tempo.

Bajakian, who just wrapped up a tour in Lou Reed's latest band, boasts a track record that includes work with Can vocalist Malcolm Mooney, Yusef Lateef and Marc Ribot. His tone on the guitar has the similar kind of irrascible twang of Mr. Ribot. After opening with the solo acoustic "Pear Tree," he switches to electric for "Sepastasia" which leaves the gate in a wail of noise that evokes another guitar renegade: Eugene Chadbourne (who, much like Bajakian, has numerous, diverse influences factoring into his work). With a little bit of Hendrix influence weaved in throughout the album, Bajakian does a good job combining rock and world influences.

His bandmates do an admirable job in developing the sound too. Wofford plucks so percussively on "Sumlinian" that he sounds like either a bongo drum or a banjo at first. Blumenkranz usually has the challenging job of riffing behind his bandmates in order to hold things together, though he gets to break away from his role as an anchor.

Among the highlights, "Wroclaw" has a middle section that sounds an awful lot like a Camper Van Beethoven instrumental from their early, East-meets-West days ("Four Year Plan" from the album II & III). The tunes where guitar and violin play the same melody tend to make me restless (bad memories of Mahvishnu). However the line in "Raki" is so rapid and twisty that the strings pull it off sounding more astounding than indulgent. Besides, the track starts off like a Middle Eastern version of Cream's "Swlabr" and has some great power chords between choruses, and a great use of a delay pedal during Bajakian's solo.

It also bears mention that these guys don't feel in any way inhibited by the odd time signatures during their solos. They let 'em rip like it's second nature. Probably because it is.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Here's what I've done for you lately

Playing right now: Starlicker - Double Demon (Delmark)

It's 6:05 a.m., I've got coffee in hand and I could be watching a rerun of Dobie Gillis right now. I actually have something of a soft spot for that show, as much as it seems to rely on a formulaic style of comedy. Bob Denver's role as beatnik pal Maynard is a much better gig that his more famous role as Gilligan.

But anyhow if I'm up this early, I want to use my time more productively and I told myself before I hit the hay last night that I'd post links to recent reviews and things that I've done.

Last week, I went to Club Cafe to check out Wye Oak. Here's a review of that show, done for Blurt. Wye Oak's last album was the first one I'd heard so I was looking forward to Civilian, their newest one. It didn't get into my hands, though, until the day before the show because of my unending desire to have it on vinyl and find it locally instead of ordering it from the label, since the price tag would've taken over the line of dollars that I'm comfortable spending when compared to the price on CD.

The same day that I bought the Wye Oak album, I picked up a copy of Eleanor Friedberger's album, despite already having a download I had to listen to for a review of it that can be found here. Why did I buy it? Two reasons: downloads aren't as much fun and because the cover art reminds me of a Francoise Hardy album, and why wouldn't I want that? Besides, the download didn't have a lyric sheet.

Going back a few weeks, there was the reissue on Drag City of a '70s folkie named Carol Kleyn as well as a rather tepid tribute to Billie Holiday.

There's a new issue of JazzTimes on the streets now, the September issue which has Ella Fitzgerald on the cover. But for anyone who'd like the luxury of clicking a link to go right to the page and read some stuff, here's my page with links to virtually everything I've done for them lately. Everything prior to the current issue, that is. The next time you're out at a place that sells magazines, does me a favor and buy one. I saw it Barnes and Noble on Sunday and, a few weeks ago, at an independent store in Lawrenceville... was it Time Bomb?

Speaking of JazzTimes I get to represent the magazine again this year at the Detroit International Jazz Festival! It's happening Labor Day weekend and while leaving the family for four days is going to be hard, I'm looking forward to seeing and hearing a lot of music. And hopefully blogging. Last time I went, in 2009, I had just bought this laptop and the shlubs at Big Box mislead me on what I could do with it after they set it up for me. Also, they put the wrong power chord in the box with it.

Maybe I'll post new, drunken updates each night from my hotel room. We'll see.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

CD Review: Stephan Crump & Steve Lehman - Kaleidescope & Collage

Stephan Crump/Steve Lehman
Kaleidoscope & Collage

It's no critical hyperbole to say that Stephan Crump and Steve Lehman should be considered among the ranks of jazz's most exciting musicians. Crump's bass work with Vijay Iyer's trio adds a new depth to the way the bass can operate in the trio setting, going beyond accompaniment while adding some intense foundation work at the same time. Lehman's alto saxophone also cuts a new swath in groups like Fieldwork (which includes Iyer) and his own unit, which recorded one of 2009's most astounding releases Travail, Transformation and Flow.

This meeting of the minds doesn't consist of written works, but it's also more than just two mutually compatible friends blowing freely. Crump and Lehman recorded together five times between February 2008 and December 2009. The fruits of those sessions have been diced up to create the two tracks on Kaleidoscope and Collage. So in a way, it's a combination of spontaneous improvisation and some cut-and-paste composition after the fact.

It's likely that the original sessions would have been pretty interesting on their own, but this presentation keeps things moving forward, keeping some moments quick, letting others draw out a bit and occasionally cutting ideas off mid-thought, leaving you to wonder if your disc player decided to stick.

The 22-minute "Terroir" introduces the duo's individual traits: Crump's rich tone and brawny bowing technique, Lehman's dry, occasionally rough tone, which sounds like it can be especially loud and edgy in person. Like his peer and occasional collaborator Rudresh Mahanthappa, Lehman has the tendency to unleash rapid sheets of complex melodies as if they were major scales. This piece finds Crump locking into riffs several times, albeit ones in odd time signatures. For one of them, he uses the body of his bass percussively, tapping out the beat. This doesn't make the track into groove music, especially since Lehman often charges against the ostinato, playing off of it rather than with it. While things get frenzied at various points, this never turns into a shrieking and slapping improv. The duo also stays on the more pensive side of freedom.

"Voyages" runs a bit shorter, at 16 minutes. It's a little less dynamic but still has many fine moments. It opens with a minute or so of Lehman and Crump making it hard to distinguish who's bowing and who's growling into their horn. Instead of grooves, droning tone poems pop up a couple times, with one sounding like it could break into "In a Silent Way" at any point. When Lehman gently tongues one note over and over, while Crump plucks out a melody, it really does sound like a conversation, in this case one that feels like the opening stages of an argument. Although the edits are fairly easy to discern throughout the album, the cut after this particular moment is particularly prominent since this argumentative exchange suddenly stops and refocuses on Crump, now scraping his bow on the strings as Lehman emits some quick yelps. The end of "Voyages" feels like a written conclusion, which is also understated but feels like a bridge to bigger things. In some ways, it feels disappointing when it fades away, but that's also the sign of a good album. Besides, you must admire to improvisers who have the discipline to keep an album under 40 minutes, when they had twice that much time at their disposal.

CD Review - Bebop Trio

Bebop Trio
(Creative Nation Music)

The name of this trio is fairly deceptive. They aren't blowing traditional versions of "Salt Peanuts" or "Hot House." Nor are they playing irreverant takes on bop standards, as clarinetist Ben Goldberg did with the nearly thrash versions of Bird and Diz on his Junk Genius album. Letteris Kordis (piano), Alec Spiegelman (clarinet) and Thor Thorvaldsson (drums) play something rather deep cut bop compositions - bop might not even be an operative word when discussing Lennie Tristano and Duke Ellington - which they perform them as a whole suite and link together with improvised interludes. I almost used the word "ironic" to describe them, but that doesn't fit.

In addition to Tristano and Ellington, the Trio meditates on Bud Powell's "Celia," Elmo Hope's "Boa," and Herbie Nichols' "Change of Season." In a way it doesn't seem right to merely compare these versions of the tunes to the originals and judge them accordingly. It's clear that Kordis, Spiegelman and Thorvaldsson know the contours of this music. (Spiegelman recalls his college days in the liner notes, when he played Monk themes 10 to 20 times through with Kordis "until we could not play them wrong.") Yet sometimes this conservatory approach to the music seems to work against them, making it sound too studied or wrapped up in technical approach.

"Celia" comes right out of their three-minute "Prelude" and the segue is easy to miss if not paying attention. Thorvaldsson almost plays the tune as straight swing, and his comrades state the melody almost like a canon, suspending chord changes until their halfway through the piece. The arrangement motivated me to investigate Powell's original piece to find out exactly what they're using as a springboard, which goes against what I said earlier but it helped appreciate the group's arrangement. The piece gets a full length reprise at the end of the album, by which time the trio is fired up and cutting loose. However the first version serves as an interesting exposition of what's to come.

Hope's "Boa" has interesting moments, with some deceptive use of the beat, and a section that sounds like the coda of "Round Midnight." This may or may not be an intentional borrow from the standard of this genre, or perhaps Hope actually borrowed the motif from his longtime friend (or vice-versa). Either way, it works. Monk also shows up - in my mind at least - during Tristano's "317 East 32nd" with the way Thorvaldsson plays a beat similar to the way Art Blakey played "Bye-Ya" with the pianist. This track begins with some striking free exploration from the group.

"Change of Season"(by Nichols) is a piece that seems most disconnected from its original source and it's also a bit unsatisfying. Spiegelman, who has an impeccable tone and can shift from a crisp note to a nice growl in a moment, plays the melody with gentleness, but Kordis approaches it with a classical feel during the theme that detracts from the piece, and Thorvaldsson never seems to get a good feel for whether he should add color or play time.

"Postlude" ends the album with 68 seconds of what sounds like toy whistles and clarinet tweets. They're not meant as a wild, noisy conclusion to the set. In fact they sound like they're just off-mike, and are more like a playful wrap-up to a fun performance. This sense of joie de vivre could have been more visible in conjunction with the technical approach throughout the album, but Bebop Trio still has some strong elements going for it. Better to just sit back and listen to the album as a whole than try to figure out where one piece ends and what tune the next improvisation cues in.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Did Video Really Kill the Radio Star?

Playing right now: Fruit Bats - Tripper (Sub Pop)
(Working on a review for Blurt.)

Yesterday I heard a story on the radio about this being MTV's 30th anniversary. I also came across a headline online a few days ago. It's kind of funny because everyone's talking about how much of a cultural impact MTV had in the '80s and now it seems pretty behind the times. Or else it's just another cable station now because they gave up on the regular rotations of music videos a long time ago. Meanwhile the institution of the music video is alive and well. Even artists like the Sun Drops and Katherine Calder have videos for their last albums.

But I'm not here this morning to defend and bury MTV. I'm hear to talk about something else.

At the end of the story on the radio yesterday, NPR faded out by playing - what else - "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles. This of course was the first video to be played on MTV in 1981. By today's standards, it looks pretty quaint, what with the tween girl listening to a big wooden radio and all sorts of washed out images of the Buggles superimposed over it. And there wasn't anything all that polemic about the song. Really, it was just catchy.

That got me to thinking that when the Buggles wrote the song, they surely didn't know what they were getting into. They couldn't have possibly known about the video craze that was just around the corner. The title might've just been a line they dreamed up, and said, "Hmm, that's clever. Let's write a song around it." Their album also included a very of-its-time noo wave song called "Living in the Plastic Age," which ironically was on WDVE's playlist briefly while "Video" was not. And of course Trevor Horne and Geoffrey Downes, the two Buggles, went on to join Yes for Drama, replacing the big shoes of Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman.

However, they were right on. 30 years later, radio stars are pretty much dead. Not "stars" like Jim Krenn and Randy Baumann, who are a big part of my morning (although not right at this moment) but the medium of radio doesn't break musical acts like it used to. It's been relegated to background music or a motivating factor to get us out of bed in the morning with commentary and songs we know to assure us that things will be okay.

Not only that, video has been killed by the Internet. In a way that's fine with me, because that medium always put the image before the song.

But yesterday I started wondering where we'd be now if "Video Killed the Radio Star" wouldn't have been such a well-crafted song. Or if the MTV programmers thought, "No, that song is, like, too weird. Roll the Mike Nesmith video."


The "I Heart Radio" ad campaign has been going pretty hot and heavy on commercial radio as of late, which to me sounds like an act of desperation. To deal with the exodus of listeners to digital, one-format radio stations, this program has sprouted up allowing you to listen to radio stations around the country (good thing, especially if you're homesick or nostalgic for bygone days [I have no problem with that on a limited basis, and relate to it, in fact.]) or coming soon, the ads say, you can create your own Pandora-like programs with the application. You mean, just like we do with our iPods now? Or just like we do with Pandora, which we do since we gave up on listening to radio in the first place? I don't see the point in creating a program that'll do something that a lot of listeners already do on their own.

In other news, one of the reasons I haven't posted lately is due to the fact that a couple weeks ago, a friend dropped off 50 crates of albums and I'm trying to make my way through them all. Four crates immediately went to the curb due to a high concentration of mold. It's never a good thing when you have to peel covers off of each other. It's even more heartbreaking to find Nina Simone albums on Colpix that are in good shape butin covers that have been eaten away by dampness. I also found doubles of some Barbara Streisand and Englebert Humperdinck among them. (They're at the South Side Goodwill in case you're interested. )

But there are some nice items in there. I'm just trying to figure out what they are, and where to put them so we can walk about the house without obstructing any major paths.