Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sebadoh, Morty and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 21, 2011

CD Review: The Spanish Donkey - XYX

The Spanish Donkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Work. Sort of.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Social Climbers - Vintage No wave you might like

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

Review from JazzTimes website

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

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Interview with Rob Mazurek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 10, 2011

Birthday Weekend in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

An appreciation: Lovin' Spoonful - Everything Playing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 03, 2011

CD Review: Ernie Krivda - Blues for Pekar

Ernie Krivda
Blues for Pekar

Some albums try to recreate a moment in time, a certain sound and/or style. Others sound like they could have just as easily been pulled from a previous decade and time-traveled into the 21st century, sounding fresh all along. Ernie Krivda's Blues for Pekar falls into the latter category.

In a way this is no surprise, at least to these ears. I saw the tenor saxophonist pull out a series of warhorses at the Detroit Jazz Festival in 2009 - the likes of which make me so "oh, not that one" despite the strength of the material - and blow the hell out of them. It's rare that "A Night in Tunisia" does that to me, outside of a jam session. A few months later, he released a solid disc for CIMP of solo saxophone performances (November Man). Suffice to say that Mr. Krivda's full of melodic creativity and sounds comfortable in all kinds of settings.

Still when he and trumpeter Dominick Farinacci fly out of the gate blowing an upbeat version of "The End of a Love Affair," they impress, sounding like some lost frontline from the Jazz Messengers. The rhythm section billed as the Detroit Connection (pianist Claude Black, bassist Marion Hayden and drummer Renell Gonsalves) respond to that high-raised bar too. Krivda unleashes an endless stream of melodic ideas over several choruses and Farinacci evokes Clifford Brown with his crisp and clear, tongued flurry of notes. Yes, it may sound be rooted in a 50-year old approach, but it has a lot of fire.

None of the seven tracks on Blues for Pekar last any less than eight minutes, so there's plenty of room for blowing. On three of those tracks, Krivda is the only horn and he sounds comfortable by himself. Sean Jones joins him on Dexter Gordon's "Fried Bananas" and Sonny Rollins' "Valse Hot," the latter which featured Clifford Brown in its original version. The head to "Valse Hot" is the one rare place on the disc that seems a little clunky. While the original featured both horns in a waltzy swing, Krivda and Jones play it almost staccato which makes the theme sound a little stiff, especially when going into the out-chorus. In between, though, there's plenty of bright moments. Krivda, who sounds a bit like Rollins in some of the other tracks, adds some vibrato to his phrases here so he won't sound too close to the original. This approach also works well in "More than You Know," where he evokes a smoky feeling, slyly quoting "Softly As In a Morning Sunrise" like he created the line.

Among other highlights, Krivda and Hayden duet on the theme to "One for Willie," an original based on the changes of "Out of Nowhere," a melodic structure that always sends me. "Blues for Pekar" is indeed dedicated to Harvey Pekar, the late jazz aficionado who was better known for his ornery comics, which reflected his personality. The track doesn't attempt to evoke the man, instead offering another strong blues performance, with Farinacci again matching wits with Krivda.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Where've I been?

Playing right now: The Oil Tasters -s/t and only album.
On CD no less! Yes, I found out used at Paul's and had to snatch it up. Turns out there are only three non-LP tracks on it. I, for some reason, thought there were almost the same amount of bonuses as there were original tracks. Oh well, I need these songs. This band was a big inspiration to me during high school. Tenor saxophone, bass and drums with a singer who sounds all nasal whine and snarl. A band like this wouldn't exist today in such an unself-conscious way. "We lived on speed, whisky and doritos," bassist/singer Richard LaValliere says in the all-too-brief liner notes.
Richard, if you come across this blog, write to me, brother. I was in what might have been the only band to cover the Oil Tasters. And I'd do it again.
I will say, I think I can tell what the remastering has done to change the sound a little. (Keep in mind I listened to this album a lot after buying it.) The sound is kind of wide and expansive where it was once all close and claustrophobic. I sort of prefer the album. But now I have both.

The roll of steady blog entries really died this month, eh? Somehow about two weeks ago, I lost my drive to keep it going. Now that I've looked at how long it's been, I think that'll be a good thing to recharge me. I want to make sure that I end the year with more entries than last year, by a significant upgrade.

Part of the delay could probably be attributed to the yard sale that we had last week. I went through the 30+ crates of records from the summer collection and tried to pull out what I thought I'd want to keep or sell for more than $1/each (the price I was asking at the yard sale). Then Jennie went out of town at the start of this week and it was just me and the kid until Thursday, when we drove down to Elyria to pick her up and visit her mum. On the way down, I said, "I think we need a little traveling music."

He replied, "Like Herb Alpert."

"That's my boy," I thought. (Yes, he knew we had packed Herb for the trip, but I didn't prompt him to say that. We had to listen to Going Places by Herb twice on the way down, and once on the way back. Lest you think I'm abusing myself or him, that album was a daily listening ritual when I was his age, and I'm just so amused that he likes it.)

The week before last, his uncle in Denver sent him his first phonograph, along with some records to play on it - a different Herb album, Snoopy & the Royal Guardsmen and a Spike Jones 78 of Old MacDonald. I'm doing my damndest to not micro-manage his listening experience. He can hold the record whereever he wants, even on the playing surface. As long as he stays away from my records (or ones that I give him), he can do whatever he wants.