Saturday, December 31, 2011

CD Review: Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet - Apparent Distance

Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet
Apparent Distance
(Firehouse 12)

Taylor Ho Bynum plays with a sharp clarity which indicates that he knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. Even when he's rapidly spraying notes, somewhat reminiscent of Donald Ayler, he tongues some of the notes instead of merely letting his fingers run wild on his cornet valves as he blows. It indicates this isn't just random energy gone wild. A master of extended technique on his horn, he emits some incredible intervallic leaps in a fast blow, deceptively making it sound like a high harmonic that can naturally be felt on the horn.

Apparent Distance came together through from a 2010 New Jazz Works grant from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Bynum states in the liner notes that he wanted to blur the lines between composition and improvisation and "upend listeners' expectations in other ways: circular melodies without beginnings or ends... transitions that are simultaneously jarring and organic." Considering his extensive performance career, not to mention his affiliation with Anthony Braxton (Bynum serves as president of the saxophonist's Tri-Centric Foundation) anyone familiar with the cornetist should probably come to expect such vision from him. And this music delivers it, wrapping such adventure in an approach that still manages to swing hard.

"Shift" opens with a couple minutes of unaccompanied Bynum, almost serving as an introduction to his cornet approach, sounding puckish and bright, along with some smears and squirts. It becomes more of a chamber ballad when Jim Hobbs (alto saxophone) and Bill Lowe (bass trombone, and later tuba) join in after a few minutes. Along with their wildest moments, it shows the sextet can be lyrical.

The piece is considered a four-part suite but each section has several different movements of its own. "Strike" follows "Shift" immediately, with Ken Filiano hitting a groovy vamp that adds an extra beat with each repetition, and then following it by subtracting it in the next series of riffs. Hobbs blows in the upper register while Mary Halvorson bangs out chords that threaten the foundation of the riff, eventually turning into interstellar space noise. This breakdown turns the presentation over to Lowe, who whips out the tuba, growling as he drones, methodically. When the group returns with some gentle but jarring intervals, Filiano bows his bass in the upper register like a cello.

The 20-minute "Source" is a virtual suite-within-in-a-suite, and it begins with one of Halvorson's strongest solos yet. In a lot of her work, she uses some sort of effect pedal that bends the pitch, which as great as it sounds, can become pretty similar each time. Here, she manages to blend that effect in with her mutant fretwork in such a manner that sounds unprecedented. Hobbs follows her with another wailing solo that could serve as a textbook lesson on how to play free jazz with passion. It makes me want to hear more from this guy.

"Layer" also crams a lot into the confines of nine minutes, although "crams" might be the wrong word because like everything else on the album, nothing comes across as excessive or overstuffed. This music has plenty of room to breathe freely. Bynum gets back in the spotlight here, at one point shifting from high scrapes down to clear bass notes in a matter of seconds. Gradually the sextet begins playing what sounds like a funeral procession, complemented by alto squonks, frenzied bass bowing and - in the final moments - fuzzed out power chords from Halvorson.

The lines that Bynum says he wanted to blur don't actually seem that blurry to anyone who enjoys music like this. But that only goes to show that composer and ensemble were successful with the execution of this suite. It's an amazing work by an amazing group of players.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

CD Review: Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid/Mats Gustafsson - Live at the South Bank

Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid/Mats Gustafsson
Live at the South Bank
(Smalltown Superjazzz)

Maybe you just had to be there.

The unlikely union of British electronic musician Kieran Hebden and American jazz drummer Steve Reid was already four years underway when they teamed up with Swedish free saxophonist Mats Gustafsson at the Meltdown Festival in London, an event curated by Ornette Coleman. A former member of Fridge, Hebden has been working under the name Four Tet, doing remixes and working with the likes of Thom Yorke when he met Reid. His partner's resume includes Miles Davis' Tutu album and extends back to the soul-jazz Legendary Master Brotherhood and, prior to dates with Sun Ra and Frank Wright, begins with the house band at the Apollo Theater. He died in 2010, less than a year after this concert, from throat cancer.

From the way the two musicians talked about each other, they felt a kinship that bridged the gap between their ages (Hebden was 33 years younger than Reid.) Reid went so far as to call the event a "special relationship, like Miles and Coltrane, or Dizzy and Bird." It's nice to hear about such a strong bond, but that unfortunately doesn't come across in the music.

The group didn't lay any claim to being a jazz unit. They played free improvisation group, open to wherever the sound took them. But Hebden's contributions don't sound like much more than samples or loops, and most of the time, none of them last longer than a few beats so they get repetitive quickly. "Morning Prayer" begins hopefully with a swelling chord but never really expands beyond that idea, aside from a few noises that drop in on top. Reid doesn't really forego tempo for free splatter. He straddles fills and groovy accents. Clearly he was an aggressive player but the mix flattens the impact. It sounds like it was all recorded overhead, making his performance sound more like a series of rolls on the rack toms and cymbals splashes, all echoing behind Hebden.

Gustafsson allegedly got so caught up in what they were playing that he didn't join in for nearly 20 minutes. When his baritone sax finally makes its entrance, it adds some more dimension to the texture. But no one really seems to be responding to his co-conspirators, at least not in an audible manner. Gustafsson blows in the Ayler/Brotzmann tradition of growling overtones, which can get a little much on its own. In "25th Street" he just blows the mouthpiece while an organ riff repeats without regard for the drums, and everything just gets grating.

The final track of the two-disc set, "The Sun Never Stops," reveals a little more of a connection. Hebden's keyboard sounds come from early '80s new wave, which sounds oddly intriguing in the setting. They gradually collapse into noise, including metallic clatter like cowbells, which may or may not come from Reid. Either way, the energy is contagious, with Gustafsson's guttural blowing generating excitement onstage and off. But it arrives after too long of a journey to fully appreciate that final destination, cohesive as it is.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

CD Review: Jason Stein Quartet - The Story This Time

Jason Stein Quartet
The Story This Time

It's been a good 14 months for Jason Stein. Last November, he released Three Kinds of Happiness with his trio Locksmith Isidore (go here for a review of it) and less than a year later this fine release hit the streets.

Stein plays bass clarinet exclusively, a rarity (maybe a first) in jazz, and he continues to develop his own identity on the instrument, incorporating the past accomplishments on the big stick, and using them in a way that's highly original. Taking that originality a step further, he has tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson along as his frontline foil. Jackson is a great choice on the basis of his musicianship, but the combined sound of the two reeds gives the music a snaky quality. Bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly round out this A-list of Chicago adventurers.

The Story This Time is divided pretty evenly between Stein originals and interpretations of others. The latter category presents a good idea of the bass clarinetist's bold thought process: While many musicians think nothing of playing three Monk tunes on an album, only a certain breed would choose "Skippy," "Gallop's Gallop" and "Work," three of his more obscure and, in at least one case, challenging pieces. For "Work," Jackson switches to contrabass clarinet, adding more of a low-end gait to the piece, making it even more playful. Abrams plays like a third voice in this track too, bowing along side the horns.

The other covers come from the Lennie Tristano lineage, with one tune each by the great pianist, and his proteges Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. Marsh's "Background Music" speeds along sounding like vintage Ornette Coleman with this arrangement. Stein and Jackson almost sound like they have trouble keeping up with the tempo, though that is not a criticism. Konitz's "Palo Alto" begins with some very un-Konitz like honks and squawks from the horns before they settle into the theme. "Lennie Bird" doesn't leave a lot of room for horn players to breath between phrases, but it energizes these two, who solo simultaneously for three concise minutes.

The quartet stretches out in "Laced Case," Stein's nine-minute tribute to Steve Lacy, which is marked by tempo accelerations and open sections where the composer runs wild all over his instrument, moving from rumbles to simulated feedback. "Little Big Horse" could pass for a hard bop classic, with its easy going line and off-beat accents, and flow of ideas from the horns. Jackson enters during Stein's solo to add some color the bass clarinet, and the transition to his own solo feels impeccable. For "Hoke's Dream" the horns plays a series of long toned themes, while Rosaly gently moves freely around his kit. Stein begins in kind, eventually escalating his feeling to keep the excitement going. As wild as he gets, he never forsakes the melodic voice in favor of visceral shrieks, though.

With its combination of challenging covers and strong original works, The Story This Time is definitely one of the year's best releases.

Honoring Sonny Rollins, missing Sam Rivers

Last night, Sonny Rollins was honored on the Kennedy Center Awards show. Just the thought of that is pretty exciting. Naturally I think ol' Newk is more than deserving of the honor, and it's good to know that others feel the same way.

I love Sonny, as a musician and as a human being. He was one of the first interviews I did as an intern at InPittsburgh and we talked for about an hour. A few years later, he wasn't doing interviews around the time of his appearance at the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival. So I faxed him some questions. Not only did he answer back a day later, his answers were very thoughtful and looked great in print.

Bill Cosby did the "induction" speech for Sonny, and while I feel like Cos has reached the point in his life where his shtick comes across more like a rambling old man (and the whole grumpy old guy act just isn't funny), he ended on a note of sincerity that was moving in its directness. The speech focused on how Cos traveled around the world, and in remote places like a dentist's office in Greece and a rickshaw in Japan, he heard Sonny Rollins' music - making it universal. "And tonight, we say, Sonny - welcome home." Something about those last two words carried a lot of weight.

For the musical part, Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane played with Christian McBride and a drummer who I can't remember. Then across the stage, out came Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall and Jack DeJohnette, along with Roy Hargrove, Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath. (McBride put together the film in between Cos and the performance and he probably assembled the band, which explains why there were two drummers but only one bassist.) It was brief and concise but good.

Much to my surprise, there was no sign of Wynton Marsalis.

Right before the show started, I went onto Facebook and found out that Sam Rivers died the day after Christmas. That hurt. Maybe it shouldn't, maybe it was a selfish, "now I'll never get to meet him" hurt but nevertheless, it got to me. It's hard enough losing a jazz musician, but losing such a mover and shaker of free jazz, feels even worse. If I didn't have the urge to write a review right now, I'd put on some wild Sam. Maybe I will on the way to work.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The American Song-Poem Christmas: Daddy, Is Santa Really Six Foot Four?

(Note: I wrote this review eight years ago at Pulp, a Pittsburgh alt-weekly for which I served as arts and entertainment editor. Back then, I wanted to give this CD five stars, but our star criteria didn't go up that high. It stopped at four. I stand behind this review all these years later and I'm reprinting here as a salute to what I think is a mandatory holiday release. Much like my original review, I'm publishing this too close to the holidays to generate any sales, but oh well. Maybe the cyberworld can offer a quicker fix than it did back then.)

Various Artists
The American Song-Poem Christmas: Daddy, Is Santa Really Six Foot Four?
(Bar None)

One thing that made vinyl records so enthraling in their heyday was the sheer number of so many weird and unusual recordings - the kind that made listeners wonder who in the Sam Hill believed that such ridiculous ideas deserved to be pressed and unleashed on unsuspecting ears. The dawn of recordable CDs makes it even easier for anyone to clog the market, but burning your own disc is now the equivalent of dubbing cassettes: They often have the basic look of a blank tape, regardless of the sound quality.

A record, on the other hand, brought with it at least some credibility, from the look of the label to the artwork on the cover - even if it came in a plain, white single sleeve. So when budding songwriters around the country received a single with their lyrics put to music, sung and played by some, er, "professional" musicians, it's no wonder they might think they could be the next Neil Diamond or Carole King.

The American Song-Poem Music Archives documents this institution - scam, some some might say - where folks submitted a check along with their preference for the tempo, style and gender of the singer who would immortalize their prose. After the music was whipped up, a not-quite-crack team of musicians would bang it out, usually in one take that ended with a fade-out so the players wouldn't have to worry about a clean ending.

The holiday season is perfect fodder for such lyical inspiration, with many yokels figuring they could write the next "White Christmas" or "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." This compilation, the second culled from the the Song-Poem archives, documents 21 such exercises. There's no reason this slice of Americana deserves any less than four stars, despite the fact that most of the lyrics are horrible. They're still catchy.

Besides, if we have to get bombarded each year with Steve and Eydie's insipid version of "Sleigh Ride" or Lou Monte's "Dominick the Donkey (The Italian Christmas Donkey)," there's no reason why catchy hokum like "Christmas Treat, Peppermint" can't fit right in. Sung by the studio gals under the name the Sisterhood, it sounds like something straight off the Lawrence Welk show. On the comp's title cut, Saint Nick becomes Mom's back door man, and singer Kay Brown sings it with all the subtlety of a high school choir soprano ripping through "Whatever Lola Wants." In other words, all the right pitches and none of the appropriate conviction - which is what makes this disc so entertaining.

Forget "so-bad-it's-good" ideology, just revel in the fact that this exists. The quaintness of tracks like "The New Year Song" or "Snowbows" (first line: "I know you've all seen rainbows...") evokes visions of lyricists resembling the woman in Far Side cartoons or Tex and Edna Boyle from SCTV. Even "The Rocking Disco Santa Claus," another Sisterhood monstrosity, sounds less like the handiwork of Giorgio Moroder wannabe than a dad - in this case, one William Dibble - in a desperate attempt at hipness. If you think about it hard enough, the Sisterhood starts to sound like Silver Convention rather than the Lennon Sisters.

These tracks all deserve to be holiday perennials, because no matter how bad they are, they're still a better listen that, say, the Manheim Steamroller and Celine Dion holiday bombast.

(Afterthought - I don't think I've heard Steve & Eydie's aforementioned "Sleigh Ride" anywhere since I wrote this review. And I've come to a point where I'd like to. Irony.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

It's nice to be appreciated

Playing right now: The Creeping Nobodies - Augus & Auspices

Thursday night was Customer Appreciation Night at Mind Cure, the record store around the corner from my house. After being home all day with a sick child, I was granted a brief reprieve from the kid and headed over to take advantage of the appreciation. (I stopped at Lili, the coffeeshop downstairs first, for a post-dinner joe.)

There was pizza and beer, but I was full from dinner so I started perusing the racks. It had been a few weeks since I was in there and there always seems to be some new stuff worth checking out, or else there's a rack that I missed the last time, since my attention span ran out.

I picked up this Creeping Nobodies album there. I've seen them twice in Pittsburgh (though it's been about seven years since their last visit) and have two of their CDs. This is might be the most consistent one, even though it appears to be a compilation of stuff from split EPs. And it really has a Sonic Youth-via-Thinking Fellers thing going on.

I also picked up a Neko Case album I'd never seen or heard of before, Canadian Amp, which is sort of a mini-LP with a number of cover tunes. While thumbing through the jazz I started thinking that it'd be cool to find another Von Freeman album, because he's a great Chicago tenor player... and lo and behold I came across an album on Muse by him and Willis Jackson. It's kind of split between the two of them, from a live concert, with standards and a some blues blowing vehicles, but maybe it'll grow on me.

While paying for the records, Mike asked if I was sure I didn't want a beer. I'm not a beer drinker, so I declined. Then he offered me a shot of bourbon. To that, I couldn't say no. I left feeling like I had just dislodged the remains of my cold, and I also felt glad to live in a neighborhood with a vinyl store, a coffeeshop and evening events like this.

I DO have reviews I want to write for the blog, but between illness in the family and change in temperature outside, I haven't had the motivation. Maybe tomorrow, which is my last day off before Christmas Eve.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

LP Review - Tony Jones, Kenny Wollesen & Charles Burnham - Pitch, Rhythm & Conciousness

Tony Jones - Kenny Wollesen - Charles Burnham
Pitch, Rhythm and Consciousness

This might be the album that can introduce straight ahead jazz fans to free improvisation. Whereas most free music can scare greenhorns away with its aggresive energy and extended technique, Pitch, Rhythm and Consciousness sounds subdued, bringing together gentle, lyrical ideas with the loose approach to group interaction. It's banded into nine individual tracks but it flows like one continuous piece, where a few written ideas launch the trio and bring them back together at certain times to make sure things remain cohesive. Although there are moments when things sound extremely spare and open, the trio typically keeps a mood flowing so that the listener's mind won't wander.

Tenor saxophonist Tony Jones, who acts as a de facto leader, hails from Berkeley where he grew up playing with trumpeter Steven Bernstein, saxophonist Jessica Fuchs (now his wife Jessica Jones) and multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum, the latter who lead the group Hieroglyphics Ensemble, which added "New York" to their name after relocating there in the '90s. (The group played on Don Cherry's Multikulti album in 1990.)

Burnham might be best known for his performance on James Blood Ulmer's trio album Odyssey, but he has also worked with Henry Threadgill and Cassandra Wilson, among others. Wollesen, another Bay Area resident, played with Mrs. Jones when he was younger, and has become pretty ubiquitous due to work everyone from Bill Frisell and Myra Melford to Tom Waits and David Byrne.

Wollesen's contributions to this album are the icing on the cake, but it's worth starting at that point and working backwards. He skips a traditional trap kit, and plays nothing but bells, gongs and shakers throughout the album. Without any attempt to either keep pulse or keep away from it, Wollesen adds to the texture of the music, providing shape and direction to the sounds his co-conspirators create. There are moments when he isn't heard prominently, but even then his presence can be felt.

Jones maintains a strong lyrical stance throughout the album, staying in a warm, thoughful mood rather than exploring extreme dynamics of his instrument. Only two of the tracks have songwriting credit (his) and it's clear these are both preconceived themes that he brought to the table. "Dear Toy" opens the set with a minor ballad, where he concentrates on the middle register after following a Burnham solo with some long tones.

Burnham's playing brings up some of the most intriguing moments of the album. While he does bow gracefully, he also plucks his instrument's strings, making it sound like a koto or some other pungent Asian instrument. It makes a great introduction to "Billie," where Jones comes in with a mournful melody that evokes a stretched-out "You Don't Know What Love Is" (I feel like I hear this earlier in the set too). If they named the piece for the singer who spelled her name that way, they certainly good the mood right. In "Jessie," Burnham sounds like he's playing a banjo. This track is the only one, however, that stays a little too spare. Wollesen's gongs move to the forefront, over the "banjo" notes and soft tenor pedal points, but no one steps up to solo. But like all the tracks on the album, it doesn't overstay its welcome. (One track lasts just over seven minutes, the rest average three to five minutes.)

There's one other interesting quality to Pitch, Rhythm and Consciousness that could have been the opening statement had I not wanted to put the music itself up front: Tactile copies of the album are available only on vinyl, with digital downloads or MP3s available too. Last year around this time, on this blog, I opined that Nels Cline's Dirty Baby should be purchased not only because it was a great album but to give Cryptogramophone positive reinforcement for having the guts to release a double-CD set with two elaborate booklets at a time when any release is a financial risk.

The same should be said for Tony Jones. It's hard enough playing adventurous, bold music and releasing it on compact discs. But putting it out on vinyl shows a true commitment to your craft and to the people who influenced you (I think it's safe to say that Jones' formative years of music listening happened when vinyl was in its prime). The people who still buy vinyl are the ones who love music, which of course is a select group. Hopefully enough of them will check this release out because they won't be disappointed. Then they can play it for their friends who are scared of free jazz, and they will open their ears more and suddenly the whole of avant garde jazz will have a bigger fan base!, not really. I'm not that naive and hopeful. But this is a great album and a great format in which to hear it.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Can't talk now. Listening

Playing right now: Cylinder - s/t (Clean Feed)
I got home tonight and a package from Clean Feed was waiting for me. Ha cha! I got two albums that feature Aram Shelton, but this one is more like a co-operative (I'm tempted to, but won't, use that word ascribed to bands like Blind Faith to describe Cylinder). Along with Shelton (alto, b-flat and bass clarinets), it includes Darren Johnston (trumpet), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass) and Kjell Nordeson (drums).

The other disc is by Arrive - Shelton, Jason Adasiewicz, Jason Roebke and Tim Daisy.

Too busy listening, but just wanted to make a request. It looks like the hits to this blog are starting to come more from people looking to actually check out the reviews, and not so much spammers or people who just hit "Next blog" while viewing. If you're checking out the blog, please stop to say hi, or leave a comment or something. It'd be cool to know what people think. And to see if the googlebot person in Mountain View is a. a real person and b. someone interested in the music or someone just doing their job.

7" review: Lovin' Spoonful - Alley Oop / Night Owl Blues

Lovin' Spoonful
Alley Oop/ Night Owl Blues

I had no idea that Black Friday was also another Record Store Day. Among the things released and available on that day, Sundazed released this - an outtake from Lovin' Spoonful's first album (available on the reissue of it) and an extended version of the closing track of the record.

Back around the time I posted an entry that appreciated the band's Everything Playing album, I considered ordering their debut, Do You Believe in Magic. It's the only album of theirs that I don't own and I really wanted to hear "Night Owl Blues." The opening seconds of that song are really light years from the band's lighter fare, such as that album's title track (though I will say the backing track of that song has a lot of drive). John Sebastian blows an extremely dirty harp intro that gets especially raunchy against Zal Yanovsky's echoey guitar chords. These weren't any ordinary white kids copping the style. This is genuine.

I haven't heard the song since I sold my two-fer Kama Sutra Best Of album about two decades ago. It wasn't a tragic loss, but something I would enjoy revisiting. So when I saw that was on this single, I was sold. Plus Zal's guitar solo doesn't fade out after three minutes. It goes for another chorus or two before Sebastian comes in, Joe Butler takes things into double time for a few bars and the whole thing wraps up neatly.

"Alley Oop" is indeed the novelty song originally done by the Hollywood Argyles. The band turns it into something of a garage rave-up, at least as far as the tempo goes, which gives it a nice bump, along with vocals by Zal.

At $8, these Record Store singles can be a little steep, but considering I would've paid more for a CD reissue that I'd probably set aside after a spin or two, this was a good investment.

Love Letters at Gooski's - a recap

Over the past couple of years, gigs have turned into dicey events for me and my psyche. The smallest thing can set me off, from a lack of caffeine prior to a show to the size of the audience to the amount of attention the audience pays to us. At the same time, if five people come to a show that I didn't expect, and/or if a few members of the audience laugh at our banter or whoop their heads off between songs, that can be all I need to have a great time.

I'm saying this because the planets aligned Saturday night at Gooski's. Arrival was easy (another factor in my mood). By 10:00, the bar was jammed with people, both in the back room where the bands play, and up front.

City Steps went on first, not too long after a constable showed up and served their frontman with papers. It sucks that he's getting sued, but I was almost relived that he wasn't carted out of there in cuffs. (Don't laugh - it's happened at Gooski's before, albeit at the end of the night as a set was winding down.) They really have a Belle & Sebastian vibe going on, but that could be because Michael happens to write catchy songs that follow the same sort of melodic path as that Scottish act. Having Bill and Kate, formerly of the Hi-Frequencies, in the band and adding a '60s vibe doesn't hurt either. They played for almost exactly 30 minutes, which was a little brief for me. Always leave them wanting more, I guess. And considering that I was worried about them going on at 10:30 rather than earlier, it meant things were right on time.

Neighbours were next, all tight Mod-pop in their sweaters. Keyboardist/singer Mike (there was a pattern here) had a Steelers sweater on, but it was still kind of in keeping with the theme. It's great hearing a band that's so incredibly tight, and clearly listening to each other to make sure things sound so cohesive. The sound was a little muddy, but it didn't matter. It felt great.

Then we Love Letters went on. Earlier in the evening, my paranoid side almost got the best of me, worrying that everyone except our close friends would leave before we got on. Not the case. In fact at least one friend from work showed up after checking out the Beagle Brothers at their show about five minutes away, at Sonny's. We were pretty well rehearsed for this show, and I think it gave us confidence. Sure there were a few flubs here and there, but when you're playing a song that alternates between 5/4 and 6/8, it's impressive enough that you attempt it. Especially when it's a deep cut Monkees song ("As We Go Along"). Erin, our drummer, sings the tune, which requires a good set of pipes, and she definitely has them. Since drums are really minor in the song, she came out front to sing it and only went back for the coda, which kicks it up to a dramatic level.

My other setback with playing last is that I try not to drink, or not drink too much, before we play because my hooch of choice kills what little vocal range I have. I was good and had just one before we started. And to lube the vocal chords a bit, I bought a shot of Irish whiskey before we went on. AND I SIPPED IT. Say what you like, but I enjoy sipping shots because you can appreciate them that way. I learned that from my friend Rob, who came out for the show, and heard us do one of his songs.

So good times, good set list, good bands. Now I'm yearning to do it again.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Have plans for tonight?

In case anyone reading this is in Pittsburgh, looking for something to do, my band the Love Letters are playing at Gooski's tonight, on Brereton Street in Polish Hill. City Steps are opening, followed by Neighbours and then us.

Good times. Be there.

CD Review: Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone - Departure of Reason

Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone
Departure of Reason
(Thirsty Ear)

Mary Halvorson (guitar) and Jessica Pavone (viola) have played together in Anthony Braxton's 12+1tet and the Thirteenth Assembly, and they've each developed respectable careers on their own, in a variety of settings. Halvorson has been one of the most talked about modern guitarists in the past year or two, thanks in part to her trio and quintet albums. Among numerous other projects as a co-leader or supporting member, she also plays in People, a sort of free rock duo with drummer Kevin Shea. Pavone co-leads the groups Army of Strangers and the Pavones, and has received funding to compose several extended compositions, including the album Songs of Synastry and Solitude (which, just to prove the variety of influences here, was inspired by a Leonard Cohen album).

If the duo had been around in the early '90s, it's easy to imagine them as a fixture on the burgeoning Knitting Factory scene, when the club's original locale was releasing compilations and booking acts that combined uninhibited improvisation with music that drew on art rock or folk or something hard to peel apart with words, due to the blending of it. (It was usually summarized as "Downtown New York.") This is especially true when the two of them sing (on three of the 10 tracks), and their sullen voices are matched by equally obtuse lyrics. "The Object of Desire," regularly gets hung up mid-thought: "In the city city city city city/of events... it's the object object object object object/sometime before then." The effect creates intrigue more than abrasion, and makes them sound closer to Mary Timony or Rasputina's Melora Creager if they hung around with the college improv crowd.

Some of the songs on Departure of Reason (the fourth Halvorson/Pavone album and second for Thirsty Ear) sound like madrigals. Halvorson sets up a 2/2 riff, hitting a low chord and answering with a high one (and at times she does really smack the strings on her big hollowbody gitbox) and the viola plays a simple melody with an equally brawny tone ("That Other Thing").

The sparse sound of the duo occasionally would benefit from the addition of more instruments to fill in the surroundings, especially when they're both playing similar parts. But Halvorson and Pavone never like to stick with one mood for too long and many of the songs naturally flow into new movements, which sometimes require a check of the track listing to see if a new song has started. "New October" offers one of the best examples of this, starting with a minor folk melody, gradually bringing in ugly, atonal chords behind it and turning into a free metal freakout where Pavone sounds like she too is banging away on six strings. Halvorson regularly steps on her effect that bends notes to the extent that they sound like they're coming from a warped guitar (which presumably is too extreme to come from a simple whammy bar). The sound can be pretty similar with each use, and it detracted a little from her otherwise excellent Saturn Sings album from last year. But now she seems to have advanced her use of it, distorting it even further to a point where it picks up the sound of her hand, or pick, attacking the strings.

The previous albums by the duo struck something of a balance between their songwriting and improvisational side, making a clear jump from the song structures to the free skronk. This time, the transition feels more seamless, like their ability to blend the two has reached a new level of precision. It's jarring, but interesting, music.